PREPARING TO ABDICATE, EMPEROR AKIHITO EXPLORES FORMER EMPEROR’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The lead article about Emperor Akihito’s wish to abdicate run on the front page of the conservative Sankei Shimbun on January 24 touched me deeply. Among other things, the scoop revealed that, about six and a half years ago, when he first expressed his intention to abdicate from the Chrysanthemum Throne, the emperor instructed the Imperial Family Household Agency to examine the case of Emperor Kokaku (1780-1814).
Kokaku is Akihito’s lineal ancestor going back six generations. The most recent emperor of Japan to have abdicated the throne, Kokaku’s example exerts a significant influence on how the role of the current emperor, and the imperial family in general, should be viewed.
Tracing Kokaku’s life will serve as a useful reference for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as they grapple with Akihito’s desire to step down. The emperor, now 83, first raised the possibility of abdication publicly in an unusual video message telecast across the nation last August 8.
Emperors at the End of the Edo Period by Satoru Fujita, Emeritus Professor at Tokyo University, (Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko; 2014) has much to offer in terms of insight into Emperor Kokaku’s personality, vision, and achievements. The author has this to say about the purpose of his book, which portrays three emperors—Kokaku, Komei (1846-1867), and Meiji (1867-1912):
“I suspect that the Imperial Court had over time somehow acquired very sophisticated political authority powerful enough to compel both the shogunate and the anti-shogunate forces to depend on it. The main mission of this book is to probe how that was accomplished.”
The most noteworthy of the three emperors is Kokaku, who reigned for 60 years, including 23 years as an influential joko (a retired emperor) after his abdication. During his reign, which was only four years shorter than Emperor Showa’s, Kokaku tenaciously kept up his fight to protect the authority and prestige of the imperial court against the shogunate. Fujita writes:
“Kokaku had the strong will to clash fiercely against the shogunate whenever necessary, standing firm on the role to be played by the imperial court as the political and social environment of the later Edo Era began to deteriorate and the shogunate faced a crucial turning point. He is credited with having proactively established the basic conditions that enabled the imperial court to play the lead in the tumultuous political history of the last 100 years of the Edo Period.
The manner in which Kokaku ascended the throne likely shaped his later behavior. On October 29, 1779, Emperor Go-Momozono, who had been unwell since the summer, died suddenly. The 22-year-old emperor was survived by his empress and a baby girl.
Nine-year-old Prince Sachinomiya, son of Prince Sukehito of the Kanin house—a relatively new collateral branch of the imperial family established in 1710—was hurriedly adopted by Go-Motozono on his deathbed in order to continue the line. The young prince soon became Emperor Kokaku.
Strong Awareness of Imperial Lineage
How was the Kanin family appreciated in the Edo Period? Fujita cites a passage from the book Sayo no Kiki-Gaki based on actual clashes that took place in that period between the imperial court and the shogunate:
“The present emperor is the youngest son of Prince Sukehito and was adopted by the late Emperor Go-Momozono when he was seriously ill to succeed the throne shortly afterwards. This means he does not have too close a blood relationship to the imperial household. As a result, there apparently are some members of the imperial court who tend to view Emperor Kokaku as of somewhat less importance in terms of imperial lineage, refusing to accept him as the son of the deceased emperor, although they do not necessarily treat him with disrespect outwardly.”
I suspect that, although only nine years of age at the time, Emperor Kokaku must undoubtedly have intuitively sensed the atmosphere slighting him. Retired Empress Go-Sakuramachi (1762-1770) took Kokaku under her wing and encouraged him to concentrate on his studies in order to prepare for his future role. Kokaku did as he was told and, by the time he became 18, grew to be a fine young emperor capable of “presiding over the official business of the imperial court on his own”—a reference amply reflecting his excellence as a ruler.
The Great Tenmei Famine (1782-1788) provided a boost for him. The year in which Kokaku was born (1771) was marked by a mass pilgrimage fever, called Okage-Mairi, with millions of worshippers across the nation paying homage to the sun goddess at the Ise Grand Shrine. A somewhat similar phenomenon—although for very different reasons—occurred in Kyoto in 1787 when Kokaku was 17 years old, as numerous hungry citizens, many of them farmers, circled endlessly around the Imperial Palace in Kyoto every day in a frenzied mass movement called O-sendo (literally “circling around the palace a thousand times”), expressing their grievances. It was one of the worst famines in Japanese history, eventually claiming over 900,000 lives. At the peak of the demonstrations, as many as 70,000 citizens joined in.
In their prayers outside the palace walls, the poor and needy earnestly hoped the emperor would come to their rescue now that local magistrate’s offices had failed to heed their pleas as rice prices kept shooting up.
Emperor Kokaku was never one to miss such an opportunity, and ordered the imperial court to urge the shogunate to save the needy in an unprecedented appeal. Fujita wrote:
“Clearly, the imperial court was hesitant and trod gingerly in relaying Kokaku’s appeal, which is understandable given that in its long history the imperial court had never once requested the shogunate to aid famine victims…Emperor Kokaku’s was a most extraordinary appeal for assistance under the circumstances. ”
The story of the emperor’s plea was embellished and circulated in documents of the time leading to an image in the minds of the public of “an imperial court exerting itself to help the needy vs a reluctant shogunate.” The people clearly supported the imperial court. Amid growing public backing, Emperor Kokaku became increasingly confident of the legitimacy of his role and responsibility as the national ruler.
Kokaku was also strongly motivated by his keen awareness of the importance of the imperial lineage. He took a rapid succession of actions to enhance the authority of the imperial court, which had for long been slighted by the powerful shogunate. Among other things, he revived ancient Shinto rituals that had been dormant for many years. A prime example was the Niiname-sai (celebration of “the First Taste”). Still considered the most important of all of the imperial court rituals, the emperor offers the first crop of the year to his ancestors while also tasting a portion.
Searching for Right Image of Emperor
Beyond reviving traditional Shinto rituals, Kokaku was eager to have a new palace constructed modeled after the imperial palace of the Heian Period (794-1185). When his palace was reduced to ashes in a big fire that engulfed Kyoto in 1788, Kokaku took the opportunity to press his point.
Kokaku developed his own reconstruction plans with a request to the shogunate that prime palace buildings, including the Shishin-Den ceremonial hall and the Seiryo-Den meeting hall, be restored to their historical glory. Kokaku continued to press the cash-short shogunate, which persistently procrastinated but finally gave in to the emperor’s pressure, making construction of a new palace possible—the present Kyoto Gosho.
Then developed a problem involving Kokaku’s proclamation of an honorary title for his birth father, Prince Sukehito. Kokaku meant to award his father the honorary title of Daijo (a retired emperor), but the shogunate objected on the grounds that this title was supposed to be awarded only to emperors who abdicated; that Prince Sukehito had never ascended the throne; and that Kokaku’s request was based on the deep-rooted attachment of a son to his birth father.
Kokaku’s response was absolutely inconceivable. At the time, only courtiers from five regent houses were entitled to participate in the official business of the imperial court. But Kokaku went far beyond the norm, asking a total of 49 court nobles to share their opinions.
On the strength of the overwhelming support he got within the court through this unprecedented consensus-building, Kokaku strongly demanded that the shogunate approve his request to reward a “retired emperor” honorary title to someone who had never ascended the throne. In the end, the shogunate held its ground. But Fujita describes as “absolutely out of the ordinary” the whole circumstances behind the incident.
Kokaku’s intense awareness of the significance of the emperor and imperial lineage helped restore and enhance the authority of the imperial household, under which the Japanese people managed to band together to overcome the crisis of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and save their nation from becoming a colony of the great powers of the world.
As Fujita suggests, a common denominator between emperors Kokaku and Akihito is a strong commitment to defining their imperial image in their own way. I will freshly take to heart Emperor Akihito’s words of last August 8 that reveal how earnestly he has endeavored over the years to define what it takes to be the emperor and “symbol of the state” in today’s complicated world.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column #740 in the February 9, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)