CAN KISHIDA PULL JAPAN THROUGH ITS “BIGGEST ORDEAL” IN HISTORY?
I recently came across a deeply touching book about Shinto gods by Mitsunobu Matsusura, a prominent historian and specialist on Japanese intellectual history at Kogakkan University in Ise, Mie Prefecture. Kamigami no Nihon-shi (Japanese History of Gods) (Keiei Kagaku Publishing Co., Tokyo; 2023) is a newly titled reprint of his “Yamato Gokoro no Symphony” (Symphony of the Heart of Yamato) published in 2001.
Matsuura notes that even among new Kogakkan students, there has been an increase in the number of those who can neither name the first emperor of Japan (Emperor Jinmu) nor tell how many emperors preceded Naruhito, our present emperor. “This is how it is even at my university, which is one of only two Japanese universities founded on the spirit of Shinto,” laments Matsuura, observing: “The very existence of ‘the emperor’ and ‘Japan’ is on the point of fast fading away in the minds of today’s Japanese, with a vast ‘sunless wilderness’ spreading in their hearts, as it were.” Matsuura’s point is very serious.
Nearly a year has passed since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was gunned down, and one senses that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Abe powerfully led for nearly eight years may now be falling apart in his absence. This is felt more strongly in terms of its handling of domestic issues, rather than foreign affairs and national security. Take the LGBT bill, which just passed the Lower House, for example. When the bill was introduced two years ago, the LDP blocked its passage. This time around, the party failed to do so under pressure from opposition parties.
Specifically, it was Abe who blocked the bill. But Fumio Kishida, our incumbent prime minister, promoted it instead. What made Kishida do so? Put bluntly, the difference between the two leaders clearly mirrors how differently they perceive and cherish Japan’s national character.
It also reflects the gap in their awareness of the harmful effects of the “sunless wilderness” spreading in the minds of today’s Japanese—to borrow Matsuura’s phrase.
Faced with this reality of “children knowing very little about the emperor and their country,” aren’t we now in a situation where we cannot help feeling anxious about the future of our nation?
Prince Shotoku’s Decision to Part with Chinese Civilization
It’s not that Japan has just happened naturally as a nation. In the distant past, Prince Shotoku (577-622 AD) decided to follow the path of Yamato (as ancient Japan was called) by bidding farewell to Chinese civilization. He made the Sui dynasty, which then ruled China and its neighbors, recognize Yamato as a sovereign nation on a par with Sui. In the modern age, when Western powers symbolized by fleets of “black ships” demanded that Japan open its ports, our forefathers first concentrated their efforts on hungrily learning from them and assimilating their systems and technology. While vigorously trying to catch up with the West, our leaders agonized much about how to draft a constitution suitable to create the shape of a modern Japan.
Kowashi Inoue, a Meiji era statesman credited with having drafted Japan’s modern constitution, initially attached importance to Western thinking as represented in the French constitution. There was also the opinion at the time that greater attention should be paid to traditional Japanese precedent as embodied in Prince Shotoku’s 17-Article Constitution enacted in 604. But Inoue insisted that ancient ideas could not be woven into a new constitution of a Japan that was ready to transform itself into a modern nation. He sounded the alarm that doing so could bring about a convulsion as fierce as the French Revolution, which saw the royal family executed on the guillotine in 1793.
Inoue took pride in being second to none in his understanding of the philosophies and laws of Europe in general, including France, but was well aware of his shortcomings: he knew he significantly lacked a thorough understanding of the long history of Japan itself. So, he traced Japan’s history afresh, eagerly coming to grips as much as possible with not only its nation-building myth, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) (published in 712), and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) (published in 720), but also the essence of Japan and its national character.
One day, Inoue was greatly inspired by what his assistant Yoshitaka Ikebe, a literary scholar in his own right, had to say—that in the myth depicting the handing over of the country by the god Okuninushi were two intriguing words concerning governance—“shirasu” and “ushihaku.” “That’s a very precious discovery,” Inoue said to Ikebe, and he thereafter devoted considerable time to distinguishing between these two words.
Eventually, Inoue came to notice a huge difference between “shirasu” and “ushihaku.” Reviewing the work of others, he found that Motoori Norinaga, the famed mid-Edo era scholar of classic Japanese literature, interpreted “ushihaku” as “possession (of the dominion),” European Japanologists had similarly translated it as “possession or occupation (of the dominion),” while the Chinese defined it as meaning “rule by the economically powerful.”
Inoue then concluded:
“As the legitimate descendants of Emperor Jinmu, the great undertaking by generations of subsequent emperors to benevolently shine light on this precious country of Japan should not be referred to as ‘ushihaku’ but strictly as ‘shirasu.’”
Inoue defined “shirasu” as governing the country by understanding the heart of the people and reflecting it like a bright mirror. Inoue believed that “shirasu” was the very national character of Japan—the essence of its polity. Convinced that there should never be a Japanese constitution without “shirasu” positioned as its starting point, Inoue prepared drafts explaining constitutional bills by around February 1887 (Meiji 20) with Clause 1 reading: “The Empire of Japan is ruled by an unbroken line of emperors.”
“Shirasu” was later replaced by “touchi-su,” which meant “to reign.” The modern Japanese constitution, with Japan’s national character as its cornerstone, was thus established.
In his latest book Revering the Emperor: From Heisei to Reiwa, the New Era (Komyo Shiso-sha Co., Tokyo; April 2023), Matsuura writes: “If someone were to ask me what the essence of Japan is, I would instantly reply that it is ‘a country having the emperor at its core.”
“Toughest Ordeal in Japanese History”
Japanese emperors are fundamentally different from sovereigns who use brute force to rule. By contrast, Japanese emperors are “ritual rulers,” as it were. In charge of Shinto rites and observances, they are tasked to pray for the peace and welfare of the people. Honoring the traditions of the nation stretching back to the ancient times portrayed in the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, the emperors have stood above the fray of power politics, providing critical continuity and stability for Japan.
Our ancestors treasured Japan’s national character dearly and built Japan on that basis. Following the defeat in World War II, however, this traditional national character of ours has been lost as we have vigorously introduced foreign systems and ideas, assimilating the good and the bad.
But there naturally are positive and negative aspects to what is taking place in other countries. Needless to say, Japan would do well to differentiate between them and absorb only what will be to its benefit, difficult though the choice may be. Japan will no longer be a country that honors its ancient traditions unless we do this. We must avoid absorbing what is detrimental to our national interests as we also continue to learn much from the world.
To enable ourselves to make smart choices, it is critical for all of us to come to grips with the true character of our nation first and foremost. Additionally, it is essential that we cultivate an eye to face up to the real issues of the world.
Abe was adept at these points. But with all due respect, I must admit I am greatly concerned that Kishida may perhaps not be as adept as his predecessor.
Matsuura stresses that Japan today is faced with “its toughest ordeal” in its 2,000-year history. Victory or defeat is inevitable in battle. If Japan, unable to recover from its one defeat in the last war, should lose self-confidence and eventually end up destroying itself, that would truly be disgraceful, he argues.
I can’t agree with him more. And I feel inclined to urge Kishida at this juncture to look earnestly back on the history of our nation, grapple squarely with the reality before our eyes, and handle the affairs of the state in ways that will allow us to continue safeguarding our national character.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,053 in the June 22, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)