Behind the Chrysanthemum Curtain

Japan's palace courtiers face big obstacles—in the form of tradition, politics, and their own code of behavior—as they struggle to create a modern role for the country's imperial family

The Imperial Household Agency, of course, hardly operates in a vacuum. Politicians and interest groups weigh in. Particularly important is the Association of Shinto Shrines, a little-known but powerful right-wing organization that represents some 20,000 Shinto priests and 80,000 Shinto shrines.

Under Japan's postwar constitution, religion and the government are strictly separate. Although the imperial family practices Shinto in private, Shinto is no longer Japan's official religion. The association, however, continues to work assiduously for a return to a national polity based firmly on Shinto thought, and with the Emperor firmly at its center. It prints leaflets about ways to preserve or enhance imperial dignity. When it doesn't like something that the palace is doing, it complains directly or through pliant politicians, of whom there is no dearth. Not all the association's causes are religious; some are merely nationalist. For instance, it successfully fought to water down a 1995 resolution condemning Japan's wartime aggression.

Courtiers do not like to admit it, but the association can be good at getting its way. Consider the nocturnal Shinto rite known as the Daijosai, in which a new Emperor, as part of his enthronement, communes with the sun goddess. The Imperial Household Agency might well have abbreviated this rite for Akihito's accession were it not for the lobbying efforts of the association. The group is said to have reservations about Akihito, because it feels he is too Westernized and too humanized. "We do not generally approve of the Emperor traveling overseas," says Masao Sugitani, a representative of the association. "The Emperor's primary job is to pray."

Despite claims to an influential and venerable past, for much of its history Shinto was simply a local cult in Japan. Before the Meiji Restoration the imperial house was mainly Buddhist. But the nineteenth-century reformers decided that Buddhism, a Chinese and Korean import, was unsuitable in the new Japan. Shinto, in contrast, was a homegrown religion. To be sure, some of the Meiji reformers had their doubts about elevating Shinto to be the state religion. Shinto, wrote Yukichi Fukuzawa, a distinguished intellectual of the era, "is only an insignificant movement trying to make headway by taking advantage of the imperial house at a time of political change." After the Second World War and the abolition of state support for religion, the Shintoists were determined not to lapse into obscurity. Leaders of major pre-war Shinto organizations banded together in 1946 to found the association. Today courtiers fear that some of the association's stances could provoke a backlash against the monarchy; however, according to Ken Ruoff, the author of a forthcoming book on the Japanese throne, they also appreciate the association's role as a defender of the imperial institution.

Given that prayer has been central to the Emperor's identity, the separation of Church and State in Japan is in many ways paradoxical. For most of the monarchy's history the Emperor's work consisted largely of priestly chores. On the first of every month, and at least twenty other times during the year, Akihito offers prayers at the palace shrines. And yet Shinto ritualists are technically not on the palace payroll. They are paid directly (and rather poorly, I'm told) by the Emperor himself, a bookkeeping fudge so that they are not classified as civil servants.

The presence of Shinto ritualists in the palace unnerves some Japanese. "Why does the Imperial Household Agency continue stubbornly to treat the Emperor as a descendant of the gods?" one Japanese magazine asked not long ago. The article reminded readers that despite all the exotic present-day trappings—including the presence of young, unmarried Shinto priestesses on the palace grounds, adhering strictly to a regime of sexual purity—Shinto rituals have not always been the only ones practiced by the royal family. In the view of some courtiers, Shinto ritual is hardly indispensable—a sentiment that the association has not failed to register. "You have to keep an eye on the Imperial Household Agency," Sugitani warns. He worries that courtiers, in their eagerness to avoid controversy, might simplify or eliminate certain rituals.

I asked Watanabe about situations in which the separation of Church and State seems to have been violated. For example, palace chamberlains, who are civil servants, regularly make visits to Shinto shrines in lieu of the Emperor. Also twice a year the Prime Minister and cabinet members attend rites for the imperial ancestors at the palace Shinto shrines. "We believe that attendance of these people [politicians] adds weight to those events, but we are not forcing them to come," Watanabe explained.

When Emperor Akihito prays, I asked another senior courtier, does he think of himself as a direct offspring of the sun goddess? (Hirohito, after the war, refused to bow to U.S. pressure to renounce his claim to divine lineage, though he did deny that he himself was a god.) The reply was deft: "In general terms he considers ancestor worship very important. How much ancestry that includes, I don't know." The courtier continued, "I believe His Majesty, being a modern man, knows that the early part of imperial history belongs to myth." Why doesn't the Emperor elucidate these myths as myths—a move that would probably be welcomed by a certain segment of the public? "You, as an American, can look at this very objectively," the courtier said. "But for many Japanese, particularly those who are vocal, it is still very difficult to be objective about these matters." Among other things, any reinterpretation would entail looking at the role Shinto rituals played in contributing to the war, which would reopen the whole question of the culpability of state Shinto and the imperial system. Japan is not ready for such a history lesson. "In this atmosphere what position can His Majesty take?" the courtier asked.

Takeshi Kasano, an archaeologist, struggles with a parallel set of issues. Kasano is one of 150 full-time palace employees around the country who research, guard, and repair the imperial tombs. Some of these graves are clearly spurious and were manufactured by nineteenth-century royalists who wanted evidence of an unbroken 2,000-year-old imperial line. Others are authentic and important cultural treasures.

For years scholars unconnected with the royal family have begged the palace for permission to investigate a number of imperial graves, especially ones dating from the third century to the seventh century A.D. Japan's oldest surviving written history dates back only to the eighth century, so the graves would provide historians with vital information. What has already been learned about the imperial past is tantalizing. Archaeologists have been able to explore several sites thought to be royal or aristocratic mounds that have somehow escaped modern imperial legal control. In one seventh-century tomb they discovered Korean-style murals. In one sixth-century tomb they found artifacts from China. Findings like these are suggestive of a complicated imperial past—and they are at odds with the desire of the palace to cloak its origins in mystery or in myth.

In recent years the Imperial Household Agency has allowed some carefully controlled archaeological activity—for example, letting small groups of archaeologists tour tomb sites briefly when the repair of moats and ramparts was under way. But initiating major excavations purely in order to gain knowledge has been prohibited on grounds of its intolerable invasiveness.

I met Kasano in the company of Satoshi Takishima, while he was still the chief of the palace's tombs division. On the question of excavations Takishima repeated the party line: "The imperial family worships at these tombs," he said. "The most important thing is to maintain their quiet and dignity." Takishima brushed aside talk of employing less-intrusive means of archaeological exploration, such as radar and fiberscopes. Kasano is clearly interested in such technology. Still, his face flushed as he spoke even tentatively of such approaches to exploration, as if he suspected that the very notion amounted to heresy. When I asked about the prospect of more excavations, Kasano replied, "I have learned that science is not everything. There is a place for myth and religion."

That point of view is publicly shared by many mainstream Japanese journalists, who are similarly shy about undertaking too much excavation. On the second floor of the Imperial Household Agency headquarters is a work space for palace press-club members. All Japan's prestigious media outlets maintain palace correspondents. Until recently no foreign news agencies were allowed; even now they are excluded from many important conferences. The mainstream Japanese journalists enjoy exclusive access to the frequent briefings given by agency officials and also to the less regular press conferences of royal-family members. The journalists not only obey news embargoes; they also prepare their questions together, taking pains to avoid sensitive subjects. For one interview with Princess Masako the journalists collectively decided not to ask anything about her childbearing plans—the question obviously on everyone's mind.

However, Japan's tabloid magazines, which are not part of the official press system and fear getting scooped by a more entrepreneurial Western press, play by their own rules. (Some palace reporters, in fact, write anonymous articles or leak tips to tabloid writers, out of friendship or in exchange for money or drink.) Several months before the Princess Masako interview the Weekly Shincho ran a story claiming that the Emperor was so worried about a potentially scandalous dalliance on the part of Prince Akishino, involving a woman in Thailand, that he had contracted a stress-related ailment. The article went on to describe how Akishino's father-in-law had complained personally to the Emperor. The Imperial Household Agency responded to this story with unusual vigor. Tokumitsu Murakami, one of its directors, himself visited the offices of the Weekly Shincho to demand a retraction. Instead the magazine ran a follow-up article mocking the palace's efforts to rein in the press. Eventually Prince Akishino felt compelled to answer the charges, using the occasion of a traditional birthday press conference to deny that he had been unfaithful: "Smoke has spread where there is absolutely no fire."

In 1881 Kencho Suematsu, a student at Cambridge University who later became a prominent Japanese politician, began sending observations on the British monarchy to Japan's imperial household minister. He warned against allowing the imperial family to become too aloof, and he stressed the importance of creating a human face for the Emperor. Suematsu was no doubt influenced by the predicament of Queen Victoria, who faced an outburst of republicanism when she withdrew from public life after the death of Prince Albert. Suematsu's reports and other writings on the Western monarchies profoundly influenced the Japanese as they sought to define their own modernized monarchy.

What lessons should the Japanese be learning now? One is that monarchies are at risk when they are perceived as holding society back. English republicans argue today that the Queen upholds outdated values in a new Britain, and that she represents the pinnacle of a social hierarchy that needs to be dismantled. Emperor Akihito may himself be a committed internationalist, but imperial rituals perpetuate the notion of Japan as a sacred community holding itself apart from the world—clearly not the optimal stance for a nation with extensive trade and investment interests overseas. The Emperor has ample resources to craft a new message. He could highlight Chinese and Korean influences on court culture as a reminder that even the most Japanese of institutions is indebted to Japan's neighbors. He could release documents relating to the Second World War in order to show respect for the ordeal and painful memories of other nations. Such gestures would be likely to offend conservatives at home, of course. But the conservatives are the past, not the future.

Another lesson is that social expectations change. A great deal has been written about the emotional reserve of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles in a more expressive Britain. Behavioral conventions of a different kind may be changing in Japan. Increasingly, the person who is perceived as the most capable wins, and laggards are quietly shown the door. Deference to established hierarchy and the status quo is no longer automatic. (Nobuyuki Idei, the current president of Sony, was by no means the conventional choice for the job, which he was given in preference to fourteen higher-ranking executives.) With their lives and livelihoods under increasing pressure, the Japanese may come to find the loose accountability of the palace repugnant.

A final lesson involves the durability of history. Aside from a small number of rightist supporters and left-wing opponents, most Japanese appear to have extremely ambiguous feelings toward the monarchy. For some courtiers and Japanese in general the quandary is the same: They are torn about the monarchy's past, its role during the Second World War, and its association with racial myths that fueled Japan's aggression. Few people in the middle find that they can speak with confidence about this institution. The story of Japan's monarchy is about the price of unsettled history.

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Gale Eisenstodt, a writer based in London, was formerly the Tokyo bureau chief for Forbes magazine. Her articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, and Vogue.

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