Japan: All in the Family

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The history and myths behind Japan's imperial dynasty

Japan's Crown Princess Masako gave birth to a girl in early December - no ordinary child, this, but potentially the heir to an imperial dynasty that claims a 2,600-year unbroken line. The press, when it was not using the language of a stud farm to discuss the problems of a family 'running out of its stock of males' because no boy babies had been 'produced' since 1965, filled its pages with stories and pictures of happy flag-waving subjects. Economists speculated on television, in between endless footage of royals old and new, that the 'feelgood factor' from the birth would boost the country's moribund economy.

Now, anyone with even a flimsy understanding of the repugnant history of the imperial household might find all this very odd, not to mention a little depressing, if they took it at face value. How can they rehabilitate this crowd? Is this not the institution that gift-wrapped racism and ultra-nationalism for the Japanese people, and helped send millions off to slaughter and be slaughtered in east Asia in the 1930s and 1940s? Which only goes to confirm the old lesson that the mass media does not just reflect reality but helps shape it.

In the same way that the BBC always manages to find 20 or so flag-waving royalists with working class accents to gush about how much they love the Windsors, the Japanese networks must studiously avoid the evidence of indifference and often healthy contempt to the emperor and his family that any random sample on the streets would reveal. Even while being endlessly assured that 'their' imperial family is an ancient touchstone of the continuity and uniqueness of national values and culture, many ordinary folk know different. How else to explain a report by a ratings agency after the hullabaloo died down that special programmes on the night of the birth by the commercial networks and state broadcaster NHK had viewing figures in the 4 percent to 10 percent level, 'exceptionally low for prime-time Saturday'?

In fact, nobody knows the origins of the family, and there is some speculation that they may have come from Korea. And the idea of an unbroken line in an institution with the usual cluttered history of assassinations, illegitimate births and infanticide should be laughed off for the fairy story it is. The emperor (and occasionally empress) flitted in and out of the political centre of gravity for hundreds of years until the architects of Japanese modernity refashioned them as the ideological head of the Japanese 'family' in the 1870s, in much the same way as the British royals were transformed under Queen Victoria's reign.

The Japanese modernisers made the emperor into a divinity, and wove a hugely repressive education system and military complex round him in an effort to mimic what they saw as the 'best' of the European colonial powers. That, of course, meant making a grab for colonies, which they did with gusto before over-extending in China and Asia, and losing in the Second World War. Children in Japan were taught absolute obedience to Emperor Hirohito from school uniform to army uniform, and millions died with his name on their lips, literally screaming, 'Long live the emperor!' while attacking the enemy.

Debate rages to this day (recently reignited by a book by Herbert Bix) about how much responsibility Hirohito had for the carnage of the Second World War, because, while he was no Hitler or Franco, he was also clearly more than just a figurehead. The rational solution would have been a full inquiry after the war, but this was stymied by US occupiers under General Douglas MacArthur, who purged elements of the system but left the emperor in place as a European-style monarch and a symbol of 'stability'. The aim was to head off those who wanted a much more radical solution to the country's problems, and in the long-term to make Japan into a showcase for US-style capitalism and a bulwark against Russian and Chinese Communism.

The decision to allow a core symbol of the country's fascist past to survive in the shape of the now mute and harmless old emperor was very significant, and allowed ultra-nationalists and the imperial household to mount a steady campaign of rehabilitation. Despite an apparently fully modernised political and economic system, the emperor is still treated as a semi-divinity. Unlike in Britain, you won't find any monarchs on coins, stamps or banknotes because it is taboo to write on, lick or otherwise defile his image. There are not a few rightists ready to lay down their lives to honour the imperial house or repay any perceived slights.

This combination of reverence and intimidation means the press in Japan treat the family with kid gloves. Anti-royalists seldom get a public airing, and even dropping the honorific titles of imperial figures like Masako invites retribution.

As in Britain, there are people who take the job of protecting the tradition of the royal institution very seriously indeed, because they think everything that makes Japan such an ordered and wonderful place to be would crumble without it. These people often become more vocal as the 'order' of the system starts to fray - as in Japan right now arguing that national symbols are needed to keep people together. It's an argument that's been heard before, with disastrous consequences.