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Japan Enters a New Era

Dawn of the Reiwa Era: Time to Defend the True Japanese National Character




The Reiwa era has commenced, and all Japanese need to be aware of the true significance of that poetic name that constitutes a call to Japan to return to its beautiful roots.


This new era name represents the same pride in the Japanese national character that was expressed in the spirit of the 17-Article Constitution formulated by Prince Shotoku (572-621). The goal of Prince Shotoku was to avoid blindly adopting China as a model and instead develop Japan’s own unique national structure as the state of Yamato. The direction he chose remains relevant to our own situation today.


At the time of Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, vehement criticism of the Showa Emperor Hirohito was rife both in Japan and abroad. There was much talk among the victorious allies about “war crimes by the emperor” or “punishing the emperor.”


Faced with this virulent condemnation of their sovereign, and above all determined to preserve the Japanese national character as embodied in the Imperial House and ensure the survival of Japan as a nation, the political leaders at that time controlled their displeasure and resolved to accept the irrational demands of the Occupation for systemic reforms, beginning with the current Constitution.



As Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur desired to keep the Showa Emperor on the throne as a means to ensure smooth implementation of Occupation policies. But this policy also masked an attempt to crush the Japanese national character.


The Occupation strictly controlled available information so that the public would welcome American rule as beneficent. As a result, mistaken beliefs that the Americans had brought democracy and so on with them to Japan’s shores began to take root.


It was at that point that the Showa Emperor issued his influential Imperial Rescript dated January 1, 1946. In it, the Emperor started by including the entire Imperial Oath of Five Articles (Charter Oath) promulgated by Emperor Meiji on April 6, 1868. He later confided his reason for doing so as follows:


Adoption of democracy was Emperor Meiji’s idea…. The Charter Oath (Gokajo no Goseimon) embodied democracy, and it became the basis for the Meiji Constitution. [At the time of the 1946 rescript] there was a great need to point out that democracy was by no means an import. 


So, despite their considerable misgivings, the Japanese government and people accepted the made-in-America Constitution, which cannot be said to reflect Japan’s national character. They did this so as to preserve the Imperial House and Japanese national character. Nevertheless, by forgetting the importance of the national character in this fashion, the Japanese people got their priorities wrong and lost sight of Japan’s national character.



However, the fact that the Showa Emperor issued such an important rescript during the Occupation is evidence of how well he had been educated about the true role a ruler.


How had the Showa Emperor absorbed this true way for an emperor? When he was Crown Prince, his education was handled by eminent scholars gathered at the Higashinomiya Ongakumonsho (Princes’ School). Although each subject was taught by a different teacher, the scholar Kurakichi Shiratori was in charge of the overall curriculum. Of course, as heir to the throne, he had to study one de rigueur subject in depth — history.


Naturally, he studied Japanese history, but also Oriental history and Western history. And of these, Dr. Shiratori was personally responsible for teaching the first two for seven years. In fact, he wrote the textbook for Japanese history studied by the Showa Emperor. It is a brilliant history text. It was precisely because the Emperor had received such an outstanding education and had such a profound understanding of history that Japan was able to weather its defeat in the war.


Nevertheless, despite the efforts of the Showa Emperor to encourage his subjects not to forget the Japanese national character, the United States continued to influence the Japanese people through the education system. I won’t get into how rigorously the Occupation manipulated information. Suffice it to say that the U.S. government assigned a Quaker lady, Elizabeth Gray Vining, to be the tutor for the then-Crown Prince Akihito, who was to become the Heisei Emperor.


In her 1952 memoir Windows for the Crown Prince, she wrote that in the “spring of 1946 the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) asked a U.S. government representative “if he could get an American tutor for his son, the Crown Prince.” Vining adds: “It has often been assumed that the American tutor was imposed by the Occupation. Nothing could be further from the truth.”



On the other hand, in his book Shocho tennosei no keisei katei — Kunaicho to masu medeia no kankei o chushin ni (The Process of Creation of the Symbolic Emperor System — Focusing on the Relationship Between the Imperial Household Agency and the Mass Media) (Hitotsubashi University Institutional Repository), the author Hajime Sebata writes that in January 1946, General MacArthur’s military secretary Bonner Fellers suggested to Foreign Minister Shigeru Yoshida the hiring a “mature American lady” as the Crown Prince’s tutor, since the “Crown Prince needs to begin learning about Western thought and customs.” That was roughly two months before the Emperor made his request. Doesn’t it seem that Washington was setting things up behind the scenes?


The Showa Emperor made it clear in his 1946 New Year’s rescript that he viewed democracy as a Japanese value and not something that was now being imported from abroad. However, in her book Vining wrote that she thought her job had been much bigger than just teaching English to the Crown Prince and his classmates. It had been nothing less than teaching them about American-style democracy in thought and practice.


As you can see, the childhood education of the Heisei Emperor took place in this conflicting atmosphere. That perhaps explains the differences in his style in functioning as emperor from his father the Showa Emperor.


Well then, what kind of education did the recently enthroned new emperor receive? The prevailing atmosphere at Gakushuin University (Peers’ School) when he was there hardly matched the traditional way of educating emperors on their proper role. And, he lacked friends, explains Hideo Shinozawa, who was a professor emeritus of French literature there, in his book Dakara Koshitsu wa taisetsu na no desu (That’s Why the Imperial House is Important)(Soshisha).


Motohide Osakabe was Prince Naruhito’s teacher for two years when he was a student at Gakushuin’s high school. In the preface to his book Hironomiya no kanjo kyoiku (The Emotional Education of Prince Naruhito) (Asuka Shinsha), Osakabe refers to an alleged incident in which the first page of a list of parents of Gakushuin students, which listed imperial family members, was “ripped out and thrown away.” And he even seems to think such behavior was reasonable. Elsewhere in the book he writes of his admiration for the poets Tatsuji Miyoshi and Shigeharu Nakano, who openly proclaimed they had no use for any emperor.  



It is hard to imagine that when Crown Prince Naruhito was in Osakabe’s class he felt much love or enthusiasm emanating from his teacher. In fact, we can assume that the educational environment at Gakushuin was icily indifferent towards the future emperor.


Is subjecting a member of the imperial family to such conditions really the way for a future emperor to acquire the qualifications that a noble emperor should possess?


It is not that the proper roles of the emperor and the imperial family are out of touch with the Japanese people. Rather, they reflect the image of the emperor that the nation’s people want, the kinds of values that they emphasize, and the degree of respect with which they support the Imperial House.


For the Imperial House to respect Japan’s national character and form the nucleus for national unity during the Reiwa era requires that the government and people also support a system and mentality that supports the new Emperor’s learning many things in many areas.


The first step for us to be able to display our resolve to build a more splendid land is to deal with that other pressing issue, namely revision of the Constitution.




(Click here to read the article in its original Japanese.)


Author: Yoshiko Sakurai

President, Japan Institute for National Fundamentals



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