In Japan, an Emperor Constrained by History and a National Identity Crisis

By Max Fisher – August 9, 2016

The New York Times

The hint by Emperor Akihito of Japan that he would like to abdicatechallenges something bigger than the laws requiring him to serve until his death and questions over succession.

Emperor Akihito was also grappling, as he has since his reign began in 1989, with a problem that has defined his office throughout Japan’s post-World War II era. The emperor is meant to bridge, and yet often embodies, the contradiction between two national identities: a pacifist democracy that officially rejects the imperial past, and a lingering sense of identity that is tied to that past.

His televised address on Monday reflected this paradox. The modern emperorship was designed, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to be the centerpiece of Japan’s imperial ideology. That ideology, which culminated in wartime atrocities, required a godlike emperor who could be worshiped as the literal embodiment of the nation. Today’s law against abdication is a legacy of this divine status — how could a deity ever resign?

But Emperor Akihito could not openly ask for this law to be amended because, in 1947, the victorious United States imposed a new Constitution on Japan that barred the emperor from intervening in politics.

This was part of a fateful decision the Americans made in Japan, which they occupied for seven years after World War II: Rather than dismantling the fascist regime entirely, as they had in Germany, they would keep the emperor and other elements in place, hoping to use them to legitimize their rule.

The United States, focused on the Cold War, wanted to cement Japan as a friendly democracy. It feared that forcing the Japanese to confront their war crimes and reject the beloved emperor could send them into the Soviets’ arms.

American occupation leaders also acted out of racial animus, avoiding fuller reforms because they “regarded the Japanese as childlike people, prone to savagery if not taken firmly in hand,” the historian Ian Buruma wrote in his 2003 book, “Inventing Japan.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led the occupation, said the Japanese were not a “mature race” like the Germans.

The occupiers allowed Japan to develop an expedient myth that its people and its emperor — officially considered synonymous — had been innocent victims rather than willful perpetrators of the militarism that the new Constitution rejected.

The nation, then, was pushed into this new, democratic identity without ever having to fully reject its old self-conception — and the emperor was remade hastily, and to mixed effect, from the ultimate symbol of Japanese ultranationalism to a vessel for the opposite ideals of liberalism and pacifism.

That policy turned out to be a mistake, said Carol Gluck, a Columbia University historian who studies Japan, because it relied so heavily on repurposing, and therefore cementing, imperial thinking.

“They took the same emperor, took him out of his white uniform, put him in a dark suit and a Hamburg hat, and said, ‘The emperor is the symbol of the state and the unity of the people,’ ” Ms. Gluck said. “He’s still the same emperor. He doesn’t know how to behave differently.”

That emperor, Hirohito, who throughout the war had been synonymous with the extremes of imperial Japan, remained in office until his death in 1989. The Japanese, for a half-century, were pulled between two contradictory messages: The old ways had been a mistake, they were told, and yet the man most associated with those ways remained a revered national figurehead, visible and celebrated daily.

That tension has played out repeatedly since, in heated debates over recognizing war crimes, the persistence of imperial shrines that memorialize war heroes and war criminals alike in quasi-worship and thecontroversy over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to make Japan a “normal” country by loosening restrictions on the military.

When Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, he passed the throne to his son, Akihito, who inherited a position that had come to primarily represent neither militarism nor pacifism, neither the past nor the present, but the unresolved tension between the two, the embodiment of a national identity crisis too painful and awkward to confront head-on.

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