Akihito as the Sovereign of Japan?

Asahi Shinbun reports that the LDP has accepted plans to push for changing the name “Self-Defense Force”(「自衛隊」) to “Self-Defense Military” (「自衛軍」). This is a bit alarming and I am sure that, if not already, there will be harsh criticism from Japan’s neighbors in the coming days.

But what made me shiver in reading this news was not so much Japan inching toward militarization, which had already been happening for a while now, but rather an effort by the LDP to (re)instate the emperor as the “sovereign” of the Japanese state. According to this Asahi article in Japanese, the commision almost approved a proposal to transform him into a mere symbolic figure to someone who would actually represent Japan in diplomatic settings.


When I read this, I could not believe my eyes. Is this really happening? What year is this?????


The word that I translated as “sovereign” here is genshu (元首). (Wikipedia translates it as either “head of state” or “sovereign”). It is a word that comes from the pre-war constitution, The Great Japanese Imperial Constitution, which was promulgated in 1889 and revised during the Allied occupation (1945-51). [The image shows the first page of the original constitution, taken from here.]

In the old pre-war constitution, the fourth article stipulates that the emperor is the genshu of Japan. This comes right after an article that declares the emperor to be divine.

So it has really come to this? Can someone wake me up from this nightmare? Are they soon going to start hailing Akihito as, indeed, a god?


  1. This does indeed make me quite uneasy, in symbolic terms, it would be a startling development if the amendment passed. However, while I am no expert on the Japanese constitution, we can probably assume that word change will remain one of symbolic value. There presumably would have to be a number of other amenmdents to the detailed first section of the constition and its 8 artciles defining the emperor’s role (http://www.houko.com/00/01/S21/000.HTM#s1). If, for example, article 3 “天皇の国事に関するすべての行為には、内閣の助言と承認を必要とし、内閣が、その責任を負ふ” or article 4 “天皇は、この憲法の定める国事に関する行為のみを行ひ、国政に関する権能を有しない” were changed, I would then go on red alert.

    Even this symbolic change, however, would be a more than unwelcome signal for future trends. I am reminded by the tactics of a very different kind of constitutional amendments taken by the DPP in Taiwan, for example. The same gradualist approach is being taken to avoid creating any sudden kind of critical uproar. It is very politically effective in a variety of environments and a variety of issues since it robs the opposition of the ability to deny it as more than “just a little thing.” Little things, of course, add up though.

  2. It should not be a surprise that Japan moves to revise Article 9 and resurrect the Emperor. As for Article 9, Japan has been under pressure from the North Koreans lobbing missiles over its territories and by counter territorial claims in multiple directions (Chinese, Koreans, and Russians). Prequel to touching the Article 9 is sending troops to Iraq and Koizumi’s stalwart alliance with Bush at the same time sacrificing Japanese security. Japan is now just as vulnerable to terrorism as the US.

    As for resurrecting the Emperor, the Japanese elites are turning to a tried and “true” method. In the 19th century Meiji Restoration the Emperor mythos were successfully martialed in the modernization of the military. Reviving the military and resurrecting the Emperor will not be too difficult in a country where the people remain silenced, unorganized, and for the most part still under the yoke of a culture of conformance (e.g. culture of shame) bred through the centuries of Emperor/Shoguate rule.

    Revising Article 9 in order that Japan may produce a more proactive military in light of multiple threats is understandably rational. In fact, we the US encourage this and is prodding Japan along this direction, though perhaps for its own interest against its campaign against terrorism abroad. It is rational for a democracy to build up its military to defend itself and in some cases behave proactively to do so.

    But one wonders why the Emperor mythos cannot be let go and indeed need to be actively defended and rehabilitated. The only explanation is that the Japanese elites lack creativity and sufficient commitment to democratic values. For, once again, martialing the Emperor mythos is a tried and “true” method of disciplining the Japanese people. And at least since the Tokugawa period, the Emperor mythos has not really been about the Emperor but about elite control.

    This is a step backward for Japan and for the world. When the Article 9 is abandoned in concert with the resurrection of the Emperor mythos, Japan’s neighbors will not see a democracy defending itself. It will see an unrepentant aggressor stretching its muscles once more. The only rational thing to do for them is to arm themselves so that history does not repeat itself. China will steer more of its foreign earnings to weapons technology developments. South Korea will seek to secure North Korean nuclear weapons and missile technologies, to leverage its own nuclear research or weapons. The Russians will revive Vladivostok to the former Soviet glory. And then, Japan will have no option but to turn nuclear, if it hasn’t already.

    Historians, archeologists, and anthropologists advance civilization by asuring that our memories serve us right and we arent’ ruled by illusory impressions. It appears that there is much work to be done.

    This reply is simultaneously posted at my blog: Prometheus-5.Org.

  3. Yeah KM, it is those little steps that creep up on you and wham! you’re in trouble. Call me paranoid, but the LDP even thinking about amending the constitutional role of the emperor is one step closer to the pre-war Unity of Rite and Rule (saisei icchi).

    And Thanks, Charles, for reminding us of the historical links between the military and the imperial throne. It does indeed make sense that the LDP, when considering article 9, also had discussed changing the political role of the throne.

    I would, however, beg to differ on one point. You mentioned that the emperor is a symbol of totalitarian rule, of “disciplining the Japanese people” and that it has always been about “elite control.” The emperor depicted here is one that is basically anti-democratic and anti-people. There is definitely this utterly oppressive aspect of the emperor system.

    Yet the imperial throne is so persistent even today because of its opposite element, one that is pro-democracy and pro-people. Many of the Freedom and Popular Rights activists of the early Meiji period — activists who I would group with Gandhi, ML King, or even Che Guevara — were also pro-Emperor.

    Why is that? It is because for them the emperor symbolized the will of the people. That is to say, the emperor guaranteed liberty and civil rights for all Japanese, as stated in the pre-war constitution.

    I am afraid to say that for some people in Japan, the imperial throne continues to be associated with a deep sense of patriotic and populist nationalism. In their fantasy nation, her citizens are flag-waving, righteous, and lives with moral conviction. LDP, by bringing up the issue of the emperor, is I think trying to cure what they see as the moral decadance of today’s Japanese by injecting some good old faith in the nation and, paradoxically, in its very tradition of populist democracy.

    This issue, btw, is also is related to the last FIAW post about postwar leftist activists (many of the Trotskyites) denouncing Marxism in favor of the Emperor. But I’ll leave it at that.

  4. Tak,

    Once again thanks for your thoughtful response.

    The idealized depiction of the Emperor as “guaranteeing liberty and civil rights for all Japanese” harks back to the “devine right of kings” which the European enlightenment effectively argued against. That debate was over with the American Revolution.

    Freedom must be taken often with blood, not given by a benevolent or “divine” idol. So I don’t see a Gandhi or MLK equivalent. Where is Japan’s civil rights movement?

  5. Divine Right of kings was a European absolutist artifact: the Japanese view which was invoked by liberals was the Confucian Mandate of Heaven, which, in spite of its similar sound, is a radically different concept requiring monarchs to be responsible and compassionate and responsive.

    The civil rights movement in Japan may be less visible now, but in the Meiji-Showa era, the Imperial Age, there were many activists — scholars, politicians, labor leaders, feminists, inter alia — who held a vision of democracy much broader than the “Family State” which brooked so little dissent and who risked life and limb in pursuit of consciousness raising and organization.

  6. I think that the notion of “Japanese Elites” needs to be teased out a little in CP’s post. It might be better to seperate the vocal right-wing political pressure groups from the governing groups within the LDP, even if the membership does overlap somewhat. The recent high-profile criticism of Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits shows that infighting within the LDP can trump nationalist policies. Strengthening the role of the Emporer may not face huge public demonstrations, but it would not be a vote winner, and many within the LDP will either be mindful of that, or even use that against proposed reforms.

    The danger comes from international clashes with China and Korea that may feed nationalism and xenophobia, which might make reform of the Emporer’s role a vote winner, in conjunction with re-establishment of the military. China is already strengthening its military, and may increasingly resort to xenophobia to bolster the Chinese government’s position. Nothing that Japan will do will change those facts on the ground, although Japanese actions may help Chinese propoganda. South Korea is also more likely to arm itself against perceived danger from China, rather than Japan, despite all the public displays of anti-Japanese sentiment (although that speculation is based on limited reading on Korea)

    Pacificists in Japan need to organise in order to pre-empt these looming international crises, as the pacifist constitution was handed-down from the American occupation, rather than created after long debate within Japan. The issue is seperate from civil rights, and there has not really been a public debate on the issues around the pacifist constitution, because there hasn’t yet been a serious crisis for it. Pacificism is really strong in Japan, linking in with traditional Japanese society in unexpected ways, but the right-wing nationalists have never been faced down. That needs to happen.

  7. Charles: Jonathan said it better than I could ever do. There have been many people in Japanese history who, as you say, shed blood for liberty.

    Take for example Itagaki Taisuke, who upon fighting for civil rights (what was called minken and is often translated as “popular rights” but is basically the same as civil rights) was almost assasinated because of his fight for freedom. And he too fought against the Tokugawa Shogunate in an effort to enthrone the Emperor.

    Chris: I enjoyed reading your analysis of what was going on within the LDP and the effect of Chinese and Korean nationalism on discussions about the emperor.

    There was one point that I wanted to ask you about. I tend to agree that “Pacifism is really strong in Japan” (although I don’t agree that it links with “traditional Japanese society” — I rather think it is antithetical to it) and that the right-wingers will make noise before they wither away into silence.

    You wrote:”The issue is seperate from civil rights, and there has not really been a public debate on the issues around the pacifist constitution, because there hasn’t yet been a serious crisis for it.”

    But hasn’t there been tons of discussion about Article 9? There was discussion about Japan’s pacifist constitution as far back as the first Gulf War, and even before when they were debating about sending SDF as part of the UN peacekeeping mission to places like Cambodia and Somalia. That was when statesmen and pressure groups began to discuss the doing away of article 9.

    But maybe you meant to say something more specific haivng to do with what you mean by public debate. I’d love to hear more!

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