Tokyo Notes

The Emperor Taboo

Discussion of the role of Japan’s Imperial family is still a tricky subject for Japan’s media. It shouldn’t be.

The Japanese Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press, and states that ‘no censorship shall be maintained.’ Yet one topic remains taboo.

The heavy hand of the Imperial Household Agency ensures that salaried journalists self-censor reports to portray an airbrushed view of the Emperor and the Imperial Family. And newspaper editorial writers better start looking for a new job if they even consider writing a piece questioning the relevance of the monarchy in today’s world.

The agency’s latest target is the much-maligned figure of the ruling party—heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa. On Thursday, the Emperor’s top aide said he was ‘sad’ to hear that Ozawa had reportedly told the palace that the monarch should drop ‘nonessential’ engagements.

In a recent interview with the Shukan Bunshun weekly, Ozawa said that Shingo Haketa, grand steward at the agency, objected to his request for the monarch to meet with the Chinese vice president in December 2009 (the meeting stirred up controversy over Ozawa’s perceived ‘meddling’ and disregard for protocol).

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‘The grand steward said the Emperor was tired or had other appointments,’ Ozawa said. ‘If the Emperor’s health isn’t good, (the agency) should eliminate those appointments that seem nonessential.’

While it’s clear that the pair have a long-standing feud, Haketa’s comment illustrates the sensitivity of the agency. And it’s not as if Ozawa was having a dig at the institution—he was just applying some common sense.

But if the agency’s clout keeps the media and politicians in check, it seems to have even greater sway over the members of the family it’s ostensibly charged with protecting and supporting. For example, it has been accused of pressuring Princess Masako to bear a male heir and contributing to her speculated depression; preventing archaeological research into ancient tombs under its jurisdiction that could yield insight into early Japanese civilization; having a system of hereditary ascent to senior positions; and exercising stifling control of the lives of the Emperor and other Imperial Family members.

With Japan’s internal examination of its wartime exploits still far from sufficient, it’s right for historians and lawmakers to ask questions about the causes of World War II in the Pacific. It is also rational (and patriotic) for people to question the role of the Emperor Showa in the war.

But these inquisitive minds have been subjected to harsh criticism and even allegedly assassination attempts. Former Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima said in 1988 he believed the Emperor bore responsibility for the war, leading to rightists descending on the city in their black trucks and demanding ‘divine’ retribution. In 1990, a gunman shot him in the back, but the mayor survived. Local Japanese Communist Party councillors and the prominent former socialist lawmaker Takako Doi also questioned the Emperor Showa’s responsibility around this time.

In his 2007 book Japan’s Contested War Memories, British academic Philip Seaton takes aim at the media over its reporting of these matters: ‘While the press reports these incidents and the nenpyo (historical timelines) have included them among the most significant media events within postwar Japanese history, the press has always trodden a fine line between reporting debate and avoiding direct editorial criticism of the highly respected Imperial Household.’

The British academic also writes about the Women’s International Tribunal on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery’s declaration that the Emperor Showa was personally guilty for the abuses suffered by wartime sex slaves: ‘This was a taboo too far for all the papers: even the progressive Asahi, which had reported the tribunal prominently, felt unable to report this judgement highly critical of the Emperor and referred more obliquely to the Emperor’s responsibility.’

The media is fond of debating the ins and outs of the postwar Constitution, but almost never touches the subject of the monarchy’s raison d'etre. It just seems to accept that the Imperial Family is a matter of fact and that they have to bow before its protector.

Europeans openly discuss the role of their remaining European monarchies, and such debate has led to these royal families moving closer to the people. And while the retention of a hereditary monarchy has its pros and cons, it’s a subject that the nation’s lawmakers and cowardly newspaper editors have a responsibility to bring into the public domain. After all, it’s not as if they’re in Thailand.