HOW A FOUNDER OF MODERN JAPAN SAW TIES BETWEEN IMPERIAL FAMILY AND THE PEOPLE
Faced with the threat of the great Western powers nearly 150 years ago, our forefathers made heroic efforts to safeguard Japan’s future, doing everything they could to avoid being crushed and subdued.
Japanese from all walks of life worked desperately together to overcome this difficult period of change. Rallying under the authority of Emperor Meiji, who took over the rule of his country from the last shogun, Japan managed to drive itself forward as an independent sovereign state unlike any of its counterparts in Asia.
What enabled our forefathers to hold on to Japan’s cultural and political identity during this time of change? There is no denying that the global order in place since 1945 is now undergoing a drastic transformation. Many undoubtedly feel that Japan may not be able to avoid certain fundamental changes.
As the abdication of one emperor and the enthronement of another draws near, we are faced with an opportunity to reaffirm the role of the emperor and the Imperial Household. How best can we the Japanese people support the new emperor and empress?
In considering these issues, it is instructive to look back at how our forefathers approached the role of Emperor Meiji, who at the time of the Meiji Restoration was very suddenly placed in the position of constitutional monarch. What did they think the ideal should be for this new form of government?
A book by Yukichi Fukuzawa published in May 1882 entitled Teishitsu-Ron (On the Imperial Family; Maruzen, Tokyo) teaches us a lot about these questions. Fukuzawa (1835-1901) was an author, educator, and publisher considered one of the most influential founders of modern Japan in the private sector. At the outset of his book, he declares: “The Imperial Household has nothing to do with politics.”
With these opening remarks, Fukuzawa warns against involving the Imperial Household in politics. Today’s Japanese naturally understand this. In point of fact, Article 4 of the postwar Japanese constitution stipulates: “The Emperor shall…perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided in this constitution.”
The constitution was written by the American occupiers immediately following Japan’s defeat in the last war with the vengeful intention to put an end to the Imperial Household if possible. One may assume that the Americans wished to deny any meaningful power to the Imperial Household, being fully aware of the immense trust the Japanese people put in it.
But Fukuzawa delivers an entirely different message when he argues that because they adored the emperor and his family, the people of Meiji regarded politics and the Imperial Household as two separate entities. And because they also cherished the emperor and his family so much, they thought of them as completely separated from politics. Because the Imperial Household had nothing to do with politics, Fukuzawa maintains that “in the long history of this nation there have until now never been rebellious subjects in the true sense of the word.”
People Valued Benevolent Judicial Decisions
According to Fukuzawa, Japanese at least since the Kamakura Era (1185-1333) have never had any enmity for the Imperial Household—even including those “who were regarded as rebellious like the members of the Hojo and Ashikaga clans.” All conflicts were simply fighting over how best to serve the emperor. As regards worldly strife, Fukuzawa asserts that the Imperial Household assumed a posture of “loving parents ready to scold their children for rowdy quarrels when necessary” and that “they did not abhor them.” It was expected that “the combatants would eventually be restrained and they were no longer seen as a problem once the strife was settled.”
Fukuzawa’s point that the Imperial Household does not involve itself in politics and maintain a position of “reigning ” but not “ruling” has a profound meaning.
On the other hand, Fukuzawa harshly criticizes politicians and political parties that called themselves “liberals” or “conservatives” and engaged in debates, “motivated after all only by a selfish desire to come into power.” The view that Fukuzawa holds is that politicians engage in a wide range of worldly matters but the emperor doesn’t; and yet all of these matters are eventually settled under the reign of the Imperial Household.
In fact, how were disputes historically resolved in Japan? As seen in the benevolent decisions of the legendary magistrate Tadasuke Ooka (1677-1752) of Edo (old Tokyo), decisions executed strictly legally weren’t necessarily considered good decisions. Suppose members of two different fire-fighters’ groups got into a dispute on the scene of a fire in Edo. The boss of a powerful firemen’s group, instead of a magistrate, would mediate and settle the dispute, with the involved parties shaving their heads like Buddhist priests. Why would they do so? Fukuzawa presumes that even though they would not actually enter a temple, they would be seen to have shown the resolve to shave their heads like priests prepared to enter a monastery.
Although he placed great importance on Western rationality, Fukuzawa did not value the power of religion in Japan. He states:
“Religious teachings have never been well ingrained in our society. Such teachings have for the most part been limited within the walls of temples and shrines. It is clear that religion alone cannot account for the ethics and morals of our people.”
While Fukuzawa did not put great importance in the power of religion, he recognized the function of religion as a social lubricant. In the Middle Ages, defeated generals sought refuge on Mount Koya, the Mecca of Shingon Buddhism, while political prisoners entered convents. When some clan lord was obliged to order his vassal to commit “seppuku” suicide for violating clan rules, a senior priest of the lord’s family temple would be called out to mediate and take custody of the offender.
This is to say that religion has historically served in Japan as a medium beyond the law to help maintain the peace and order of society. Fukuzawa appreciated the power religion has to make society more comfortable to live in.
But still, as mentioned earlier, Fukuzawa emphasized that religion has been limited to sermons chanted in temples and has failed to assume the role of bringing good ethics and essential values to the people. He declares: “It is therefore becoming increasingly evident that turning to the Imperial Household is ever more important.”
Love and Respect for the Imperial Household
Neither religion nor politics can be the ultimate force to resolve problems or eliminate friction in society. Fukuzawa maintained this role can only be played by the Imperial Household. Where does such all-mighty authority come from? What is the origin of the “reigning power” of the Imperial Household?
Fukuzawa maintained that “the emperor (and empress) of a nation are like the parents of the house.” The parents of a respectable family lovingly “reason with their children about doing something just,” but never “threaten to whip them if they do not obey them.” They not only refrain from threatening them but dare not even hold a whip in their hands.
These parents’ relationship with their children is just like that between the Imperial Household and the people in Japan, asserts Miyazawa, stressing that this is quite different from the relationship between politicians and the people. The Diet legislates. When a citizen violates the law, he or she will be punished. Penalizing citizens is nothing to be commended or encouraged. Binding citizens tightly with disciplinary penalties in order to retain social order is like forcing them to “sit in a matless room or live on an airless earth.” Pressed mercilessly to abide by social principles, people may sometimes suffocate.
Only the Imperial Household can save the people from such a plight, sending a gentle air of compassion across the country, setting their minds at rest, and bringing peace and order to their lives.
Grappling with the surging rough seas of the Meiji Restoration, the Imperial Household unified the people, solidly sustaining the very foundation of our nation. Japan was thus able to ride out the crisis. The power of the Imperial Household brings about the peace of mind of the people—a great soothing force. Refusing to side with any particular party or faction, the Imperial Household takes a benevolent overview of the nation from an impartial standpoint, enveloping the entire nation with the warmth of a gentle spring day. Fukuzawa asserts this posture created the power the Imperial Household has today.
How our forefathers, including Fukuzawa, felt about the Imperial Household, will serve as a valuable reminder of the type of relationship the nation should have with the new emperor and empress. I wish to stress the importance of committing ourselves to protecting Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako with all our love and respect. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 848 in the April 18, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)