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Imperious times in Japan

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All things imperial are in the news in Japan and the US.  The American right wing is criticising President Obama for bowing to Emperor Akihito.  Not only should the President not bow, his bow was too deep and he should not have shaken the Emperor's hand at the same time, they argue!  Thank God that we have an American President who is respectful for the cultural traditions of other countries, like its great ally, Japan. 

And then, in celebrating the 20th anniversary of his ascension to the throne, Emperor Akihito commented that he believed that his father Emperor Hirohito did not support World War 2.

But who is this emperor?  Does he still have a role in modern Japan?

The Japanese emperor is quite unique.  For one, he is the world's only remaining emperor.  The Japanese imperial family has an unbroken rule of perhaps more than 2600 years, unlike the poor Chinese emperors who could lose the mandate from heaven, leading changes in dynasties.    

The emperor is not like a normal monarch.  He has not 'ruled' the country since at least the 9th century.  He has not been a military leader, nor waged war.  He is not a political leader or even head of state.  He was not a chief judge.  In this way, he is not like the Queen of England who is head of the armed forces and the Church of England.  

He has always been more of a symbol of the unity of Japan.  He was used to legitimize the nation's ruler, like the long-serving Shoguns.  He was at times considered to be a god, but Japan has many gods, so we should not overestimate the importance of his divinity.  And until the constitutions of recent centuries, the Emperor has sometimes been a woman. 

What do the Japanese people think of the emperor?  He arguably serves the interests of right wing nationalists.  But they are frustrated that the current emperor does not behave like an emperor.  He seems more committed to his family than the nation.  He does not live up to the frugal traditions of his father.  He seems more left wing.  In short, he performs his emperor duties more like a salaryman than a real emperor!  

And what's more, the Crown Prince does not seem to take his responsibilities too seriously.  He does not practise the Shinto rites.  And while we all sympathise with Princess Masako, who has suffered at the hands of the palace bureaucracy, she is more interested in going shopping and to fancy restaurants with her girlfriends, than doing her official duties.

Japan's youth are indifferent toward the Emperor -- they do not understand the role of the emperor.  But could the Emperor find a new relevance in today's Japan?  Should he be a symbol of today's Japan, as a family man?  Or could he play a role model for the future?

Today's Japan is presently lost in translating its past into a future.  When it opened to the rest of the world 150 years ago, it tried militarism and that failed.  It then launched into economic development which got bogged down in crisis 20 years ago.  And now it is being overtaken by China.

Could the Emperor help Japan carve out a niche for itself in world affairs?  Some argue that he could take on a leadership role in protecting the environment, an area where Japan's technology makes major contributions.  Also, the Shinto religion is basically about worshiping the environment.  But then, Japan is not even living up to its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.  And business and the bureaucrats are up in arms over Prime Minister Hatoyama's proposal to cuts carbon emissions by 25 per cent.

Could the Emperor play a leadership role in establishing the East Asian Community that Hatoyama and other Asian leaders are talking about?  He could indeed contribute to the necessary reconciliation between Japan and its neighbours.  But many might see that as too political.

In a world which is currently bereft of moral leadership, institutions like the Japanese Emperor could make a contribution to global peace and prosperity.  But the likelihood, in a conservative country like Japan, is that the Imperial institution will just fade away ... perhaps like the country itself.