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
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On this unusually steamy day in late May, Makoto Watanabe is frantic. In less than twenty-four hours the Emperor and Empress of Japan will leave from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to begin a twelve-day official tour of Brazil and Argentina. Watanabe perches restlessly on the edge of an overstuffed chair covered in gold cloth. His secretary brings in green tea, served in blue-and-white china cups embellished with chrysanthemums, the imperial symbol. The phone rings, and Watanabe races across the office. "Yes, yes—morning coats," he says. In a moment the phone rings again. This time Watanabe goes over the details of a speech that Emperor Akihito is to deliver.

A thoughtful man whose profile is one of attenuated sharp angles, Watanabe is the grand chamberlain—perhaps Akihito's closest adviser. He is also a courtier who seems to be perennially caught in the middle as Japan's imperial system—a system at once delicate and durable—is pulled this way and that by the conflicting forces at work in Japan as a whole.

Watanabe's pedigree is impressive. His great-grandfather was the imperial household minister from 1910 to 1914. His father, a onetime count, was a playmate of Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito. Watanabe began his career, in 1959, as a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His first palace job was as grand master of ceremonies. In this position he handled the royal couple's official international trips, oversaw some thirty court musicians, and took diplomats and politicians on palace-sponsored duck-netting and cormorant-fishing expeditions. The Emperor and Empress personally approved him for his current job in 1996.

Watanabe's life is tightly intertwined with that of the imperial couple. Most days he is by their side at 9:00 A.M., attending Shinto ceremonies or official audiences for, say, principals of junior high schools or participants in the Special Olympics. Some nights there are banquets for visiting heads of state. Watanabe is privy to the most mundane details of palace life. At the outset of one interview he fretted about the Empress's affliction with a form of herpes that was causing pain in her shoulder.

The imperial chamberlains, of whom the grand chamberlain is the chief, are part of an inner circle of palace bureaucrats, or oku, who work closely with the Japanese royal family. Until the 1970s, when the government decided that morning coats and automobiles would be more appropriate, the chamberlains wore white robes and rode in horse-drawn carriages to pray at the palace shrines. Together with the omote—the administrative courtiers who serve as liaisons with cabinet officials, ministries, and other agencies—they make up the Imperial Household Agency, a secretive bureaucracy that wields enormous control over the affairs of the imperial family. The friction between the oku and the omote has long been fodder for Japan's tabloid press. The strife is real, engendered in part by differences in the roles and perspectives of the two groups. On one occasion when I spoke with Watanabe, he stressed the urgency of fixing a "communication problem" with the omote.

The courtiers of Japan's royal house did not need the death of Princess Diana last year, and the anti-monarchical sentiment amid the mourning that ensued, to remind them that modern monarchies can be fragile institutions, venerable but also buffeted by the crosswinds of the moment. "Emperor Akihito realizes that the greatest challenge for a monarchy in a democratic society is simply to survive," a senior Japanese palace official said to me recently. But how to survive? Behind the walled, moated perimeter of the Emperor's 285-acre palace grounds, an island of luxuriant foliage and delicious air amid Tokyo's congestion, courtiers like Watanabe endlessly and inconclusively search for a response to that challenge.

Think of the imperial grounds as a splendid but secluded village. The Imperial Household Agency headquarters, a European-style structure built in the 1930s, is the town hall. To one side is the palace, rebuilt in 1968, with traditional Japanese-style patinaed-bronze roofs and elegant formal rooms. Some distance away is the two-story modern home of Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko, and their unmarried twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Princess Sayako. It consists of sixty-two rooms (many reserved for official use) laid out around a garden. Dispersed around the grounds are shrines, archives, a hospital, and a silkworm nursery. On a stroll one encounters the occasional volunteer group, its members bent and wrinkled, dutifully sweeping leaves. Smartly dressed men and kimono-clad women arrive in tour buses for audiences with the Emperor. But mostly there is silence.

Here in this compound, in once-magnificent offices that show unmistakable signs of decay (peeling wallpaper, empty Kirin beer bottles, dying plants perched perilously on dusty shelves), Japan's imperial minders speak in dissonant voices.

There are the purists, who subscribe to the view of monarchy articulated for Britain in the late nineteenth century by the political writer and Economist editor Walter Bagehot: royalty must remain cloaked in mystery and magic. They shun talk of more frequent and less formal imperial outings. By scripting press conferences, limiting photographs, and assuming personal responsibility for royal foibles, the purists seem intent on purging the imperial family of its humanity and individuality. They cherish a vision of Japanese monarchy that the public is becoming increasingly disinclined to accept.

Then there are the more forward-looking courtiers, who are busy studying the King of Thailand's development projects and the Belgian monarchy's involvement in trade missions. They want to give Japan's Emperor a more activist role. Members of this group are desperately searching for a modern theme that would solidify public support. "Strong ideological opposition to the monarchy has weakened in recent years," says one senior courtier. "But now we have a new problem: there is an increase in the number of people who don't feel they need the system. And the monarchy hasn't been made meaningful to the younger generation."

This attitude could emerge more powerfully in the event of significant provocation. Imagine, for a moment, that Princess Masako, the Harvard graduate and onetime diplomat who married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, does not produce an heir. This is a real possibility, after five years of childless marriage and, apparently, a dutiful effort to conceive. If the Crown Prince, now thirty-eight, dies without issue, his brother, Prince Akishino, thirty-two, will be next in line to the throne. But after him? So far Akishino has fathered only daughters, and an 1889 law limits succession to a male. Some courtiers, albeit off the record, argue in favor of changing that law. To amend it, however, would require approval by the Diet, or parliament. This would in all likelihood entail a wrenching debate about the meaning of monarchy. The Japanese people would come face to face with the fact that the throne reflects their society all too well. It is built of awkward compromises sustained by administrative inertia. It is an expression of Japan's muddled nationalism.

THERE seems to be no definitive textbook on the management of monarchy, but if a recent analysis in Britain's Financial Times is any guide, the Japanese have done well with some of the basics. Japan's royal family is for the most part morally upright, so far as is known. Its members are discreet with regard to the media. They stay far away from politics. (Japan's 1947 constitution prohibits political involvement by the Emperor.) The royal family lives elegantly but not ostentatiously.

Japan's imperial system is not cheap, however. Including salaries for some 1,150 imperial employees (administrators, cooks, gardeners, musicians, scholars, financial managers, servants) and for 970 palace police officers, the total annual bill is around $200 million. Japan's royal family owns neither the ground on which the imperial palace sits—which during the real-estate boom of the late 1980s was reported to be worth as much as the entire state of Florida—nor any of the almost ten square miles of property, including farms, burial grounds, and outlying villas and palaces, that have been designated by the government for the court's exclusive use. The Emperor is, in effect, a glorified salaryman, paid a yearly tax-free stipend of about $2.4 million. A portion of that, perhaps a third, goes to support certain staff members in the Emperor's personal employ—assistants for his private research on gobiid fish, for example. Daily living expenses for Empress Michiko and Princess Sayako, for the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, and for the Emperor's aged mother also come out of the Emperor's stipend. Several additional households that belong to the imperial family are given their own tax-free stipends, generally about $220,000 a year.

With the nation straining under a huge budget deficit and serious economic malaise, some courtiers worry that the royal family will be accused of not earning its keep. Of course, bean counting misses the point. In Japan, as in Britain, the monarchy serves as the repository of the nation's traditions. "We have a two-thousand-year history," Satoshi Takishima, who until recently ran the palace's tombs division, once told me by way of explaining his visceral resistance to innovation. "We are not in the habit of changing things." Another courtier underscored the point by invoking a mystical simile: "The Emperor system is like air, not something somebody made."

The truth is, however, that many of the traditional trappings of the Japanese throne, from archaic-looking Shinto wedding ceremonies to the design of some of Japan's most sacred shrines, were purposely created by Japan's governing elite as a way to unify the populace after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This event, which ended two and a half centuries of feudal rule, brought the imperial house closer to the center of Japan's culture than it had ever been before. Hitherto, for example, the average Japanese knew little about the Emperor, or about his mythical claim to descent from the sun goddess.

The Meiji Restoration, a dramatic historical period, saw the creation of an ideology from which the Japanese in important respects have scarcely budged. Takashi Fujitani, a history professor at the University of California at San Diego, writes, in his book Splendid Monarchy (1996), "The emperor and his family continue to perform their ceremonials as if they were traditional—somehow timeless and without a history—and in so doing erase the memories of a past when national community was but the dream of a few." The calculated manufacture of tradition is not uniquely Japanese. As the historian David Cannadine has pointed out, only in the late nineteenth century did the British monarchy resume staging splendid public spectacles; for quite some time before that its rituals were clumsy and essentially private.

For Britain's monarchy the challenge is to symbolize the spirit of the nation in a United Kingdom irrevocably beyond the Age of Empire. Japanese courtiers face the task of conveying, through the imperial family's activities, a binding ideal of Japanese nationhood that goes beyond the myth of unique blood—a concept that is beginning to lose its appeal even within Japan. That task would be daunting enough without the prevailing official culture of diffidence and indirection.

Emperor Akihito's interviews and press conferences are formal, staid affairs, and his speeches are almost entirely written for him by courtiers and cabinet members. A talk with Makoto Watanabe is one of the few ways of gaining insight into Akihito's mind, and even this route is oddly circuitous, lined with confusing road signs, and studded with dead ends. And yet Watanabe would argue, with some justification, that Akihito chafes at being dictated to and in fact asserts himself on certain issues. Shortly after Emperor Hirohito died, in 1989, Akihito made a point of clearly articulating his support for the present Japanese constitution—a subtle rebuke to Japan's extreme right-wing activists, who assume that Hirohito never really liked this American-crafted document. (Hirohito did have his reservations. He wanted to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn, in the manner of the British monarchy.)

Akihito has edged delicately toward controversy in other ways. In 1990, when Hitoshi Motoshima, the mayor of Nagasaki, was shot by fanatics for suggesting that Hirohito was partly responsible for the behavior of the Japanese military during the Second World War, Akihito visited the mayor and conveyed his sympathy. Akihito has also demonstrated some initiative in the matter of the Japanese island of Okinawa. His father was never welcome there. Okinawans felt betrayed by Hirohito, and held him responsible for the island's wartime devastation and for encouraging the United States to prolong its postwar occupation. Akihito, however, has shown interest in the poetry of Okinawa and has made several trips to the island, despite being attacked by a firebomber on one occasion.

Hiroshi Takahashi, a journalist and perhaps the most knowledgeable chronicler of the Japanese throne, credits Akihito personally for sharpening and deepening the public expression of Japanese remorse for Japan's ravaging of China and its people during the Second World War. This expression, uttered in the course of Akihito's visit to China in 1992, was particularly controversial, because conservatives did not want the Emperor to apologize to the Chinese at all, and they lobbied the Diet to dilute his speeches. Nobody at the palace will confirm Takahashi's claim, though Watanabe will say that the Emperor makes some editorial changes to the remarks he delivers, seizing opportunities to speak his own mind.

But such gestures, and much else of what the Emperor does, may be too subtle for the average harried citizen to grasp. Many Japanese regard Akihito as bland in comparison with his charismatic father. And the truth is that many of the Emperor's duties are nothing but symbolic drudgery—attesting the appointment of ambassadors and ministers, putting his seal on documents from the cabinet. Every year in early summer the Emperor plants rice at the palace paddy, and the Empress goes off to cultivate silk at the imperial silkworm nursery. "This is a nice tradition," one courtier says, "but Japan's silk industry is pretty much gone, and the number of rice farmers is rapidly shrinking. And Japan's computer industry doesn't need encouragement from the imperial family."

Some Japanese believe that the seeming reticence of the throne is a deliberate choice of the Emperor's advisers. No doubt this is true to some extent, but a good part of the perceived reticence is due simply to inertia. A friend who once worked at the palace told me that it took him a full year to negotiate access to files he needed in order to complete the task for which he had been hired. "The apathy is extraordinary," he recalled. Like Watanabe, most senior officials at the palace come from one of the ministries, many on a short-term basis. The ostensible purpose of this system, which reflects pre-war patterns, is to keep the palace well connected and well informed. But it no longer works. In pre-war times a stint at the palace carried prestige. Today many regard the assignment as an unwelcome diversion from their careers. Understanding little about the imperial system, the temporary courtiers cling blindly to precedent so as not to make some terrible mistake. There are, of course, exceptions. One I met was Tokumitsu Murakami, a director at the Imperial Household Agency, whose bookshelves were filled with volumes on the imperial system written by both left- and right-wing scholars—part of his determined effort to understand what is going on. "It's nice that he's trying," said one Japanese journalist who covers the court. "But he'll be gone soon." Indeed, Murakami recently left the palace's employ.

Taking the notion of imperial impartiality to paralyzing extremes, courtiers rarely seize what might seem like obvious opportunities. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake many volunteer groups formed to help the victims. One adviser suggested dispatching the Crown Prince and Princess to pitch in as a show of support. But the idea was abandoned out of fear of possible criticism for favoring one group over another.

Last year, after the death of Princess Diana, I watched with great interest to see how Britain's royal minders would deal with the public call for the palace to break with protocol and lower flags to half mast, and for the Queen to openly exhibit grief. I was astonished by the rapid and coherent articulation of public opinion and the speed of the throne's reply. Had Japan's Imperial Household Agency been confronted with a similar challenge (not that the Japanese public would ever have been so forward), it probably would have taken the courtiers weeks to overcome infighting, passivity, and the meddling of interest groups.

Another front on which the palace seems to have stalled indecisively involves Princess Masako. Many Japanese expected that she would play a role somewhat comparable to Princess Diana's, and that she would breathe new life into Japan's royal house. This has not happened, and there has been a torrent of press commentary, in Japan and also in the West, questioning why Masako has not assumed a less traditional position. Courtiers have been accused of stifling her ambitions—an understandable accusation in view of history. Japan countenanced eight Empresses among its rulers from 593 to 1771, but after the Meiji Restoration, as noted, the monarchy became a male preserve. Basing their practice on a study of Western models, the Japanese also made royal women conform to roles as wives, mothers, and facilitators of charitable work. By the 1930s palace courtiers were increasingly emphasizing the Emperor's divine status, and the Empress had become even less of a public figure and even more purely a biological vessel for ensuring the continuation of the imperial line.

When I first asked courtiers about Masako, two years ago, they were still sorting out their thoughts. "I don't understand what reporters mean by 'active,'" said the grand master of the Crown Prince's household, Kiyoshi Furukawa. "She's very active. She already has a busy schedule. If we didn't refuse requests, she'd have no private time." Together with the Crown Prince, Masako visits old-age homes, attends sporting events for the disabled, greets foreign guests, and occasionally makes trips overseas. However, these are the same sorts of activities that Empress Michiko performed when she was the Crown Princess. Masako is seen as little more than a demure extension of her husband. Furukawa had no problem with that: "The main function of the Crown Princess is to support the Crown Prince."

More-recent conversations with courtiers indicate that they realize that a good part of the public wants to see Masako as a spontaneous modern woman with a meaningful public life. "I'm hoping that after a certain period of time she will find a way to express herself," Watanabe says. Another senior courtier agrees. "Women in Japan certainly expect this, and if she doesn't, people may lose interest in her," he told me. Of course, they may lose interest anyway. The less prescribed and more spontaneous the job of being a royal figure becomes, the more importance individual personality assumes. But will the people like what they see up close? The fact is, Masako seems to be rather conservative and deliberative, not the free spirit or the boat rocker that some members of the public seem to think. "The media created an overblown image of Princess Masako as the young, aggressive career woman," Watanabe says. "She's very intelligent, but she is also more of a follower." Watanabe dismisses the notion that palace traditionalists have been cramping her style, insisting that her orthodox clothes—the trim suits, hemmed to the knee, and matching hats, often in sweet pastel colors—are her own choice. One fellow student at Oxford recalls, "Masako was very much the traditional Japanese woman, unlikely to take initiative or stick her neck out."

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.

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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