Modern Japanese Society and the Tenno System (Japanese emperor system)

The country name “Japan” does not reveal its system of government. So what is Japan’s system of government? In fact it is a democracy, which recognizes the tenno as a symbol of the state.

The Constitution of Japan stipulates that the tenno shall be the symbol of the state and that sovereign power resides with the people. Tenno is not actually a monarch but a symbol. The tenno system can be said to be a weak form of constitutional monarchy. Since the Constitution does not include the word “monarch,” Japan does not have one.

What is a democracy? It is difficult to define it, but one of the most critical requirements is that there be no hereditary echelon in the nation’s organization.
From this standpoint, Japan cannot formally be described as a pure democracy. However, no one would probably dispute the fact that post-war Japan is essentially a democratic nation, and yet the tenno system is managed by a governmental organization, the Imperial Household Agency, and the scale of the system makes the tenno look like a constitutional monarch rather than a symbol. The Imperial Household Agency is allocated a total annual budget in the region of ¥26.1 billion yen (FY2009) (*1). This is equivalent to around 1.7 times the total salaries of all members of both the upper and lower houses of the National Diet of Japan.
The roles of the tenno are limited to ceremonial duties only under the Constitution of Japan. However, medals of honor and awards have been expanded beyond the limit, and expenses for the tenno system has increased dramatically from the time when the system that recognizes the tenno as a symbol of the state started after World War II.
I believe that this situation is the main reason why Japanese people cannot confidently say that Japan is a true democracy.

According to the results of a 2009 opinion survey (*2), 8% of respondents supported the abolition of the Tenno system, which is not an insignificant number by any means. The pros and cons of the symbolic Emperor system have never been put up for public discussion since it was introduced after the end of the Second World War. For Japan to become a true democracy, the tenno system needs to be abolished or, at the very least, placed outside the government framework. But it seems extremely unlikely that Japan will see any amendments to its constitution in this regard any time soon.

But since there is now actually only one boy in the next generation with the right of succession to the Imperial throne, I think that, if things kept going the way they are, this system would die out naturally. However, attempts are likely be made to maintain the system by allowing a female tenno. Even so, given its dwindling size, the Imperial Family no doubt faces tough times ahead. Supposing a female tenno was allowed, if the all-male lineage was interrupted, the tradition of bansei ikkei or patrilineal succession, which lies at the very core of the tenno system, would collapse, and this would, in fact, mark the end of the tenno system in its original form. From this point onward, the tenno system would lose its meaning and exist in name only. In other words, the belief in the divinity of direct male descendants, which is fundamental to the tenno system, would collapse, meaning that the tenno is no longer divine. This would drive away many politicians, academics and bureaucrats with an Emperor-centric ideology and would also change the tenno’s relationship with religion (*3).

The tenno has also had a huge impact on seken or the community in Japan (*4). It is this community which has harbored a deep sense of awe, albeit nothing compared to that in prewar Japan. However, this sense of awe also appears to be decreasing these days compared to the Showa Era, as the community diminishes and urban mentality becomes more firmly established.

Japan has undergone a huge transformation between the prewar and postwar periods. The shift to democracy after the war, moving away from a system which began in the Meiji Era with the restoration of Imperial Rule and lasted until the end of the war, was such a huge change. The Meiji Constitution (Constitution of the Empire of Japan), which was enacted in the Meiji period and which was in force until immediately after the end of the war, reflected the characteristics of absolute monarchism too strongly. Under the constitution, the Emperor had the right to make all legislative, executive, and judiciary decisions. The constitution had no provisions for a prime minister or cabinet. The military was under the supreme command of the Emperor.
Japan took the form of a constitutional monarchy. However, considering the situation described above, we have to say that it was different from the constitutional monarchy in Europe, where the king’s power was limited by parliament.

Since ancient times, the tenno had occupied the position of primacy in the Japanese nation and yet had had no direct involvement in politics to a degree unparalleled in the world. This remained the same even after the Meiji Era. Consequently, the form of government under the tenno system appeared less authoritarian, prompting some to mistakenly believe that the system was democratic. However, the ambiguities of the tenno system, among which the tenno was not involved in politics while being a towering figure, caused a huge power vacuum and uncertainty over where responsibility lay. This resulted in the military invoking the divine will of the tenno and running amok without any intervention in World War II.

Following Japan’s defeat, the Constitution of Japan was established under the American Occupation. Consisting of eleven Chapters, this Constitution deals with the Emperor in the opening first chapter, with Article 1 stating that the Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and that sovereign power resides in the People, and Articles 3, 4 and 7 providing for the acts of the Emperor in matters of state and restrictions thereon, in other words, stating that the Emperor shall perform only acts in matters of state, that all such acts in matter of states shall require the advice and approval of the Cabinet, and that the Emperor shall not have powers related to government. These provisions about the Emperor at the start of the Constitution are considered to have placed strong restrictions on the acts of the Emperor in light of the experiences of the war. The Constitution of Japan includes acts in matters of state that give a peculiar impression in terms of the description in Article 1 of the Constitution of Japan that sovereignty resides in the people, even though all of these acts require the advice and approval of the Cabinet. Such acts in matters of state include, among others, the convocation of the Diet, appointment of ministers of state and announcement of national elections, all of which are basis of democracy. Even countries that are constitutional monarchies do not have provisions like these. It is commonly accepted that the contentious Article 9 expressly renouncing war and laying down arms was proposed by the Japanese side to preserve the tenno system which was under criticism from other countries. Thus, the Constitution of Japan was born and, dubbed the Peace Constitution, it has fortunately survived to the present day thanks to maintenance of the Western world order built on US power.

The Constitution says that the Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People, but when we say that a person is a symbol, as stipulated in the Constitution, what does this mean? Things like national flags and national anthems are determined specifically by law, and there are no other examples, anywhere in the world, of a person being identified as a symbol in the Constitution. Usually, a symbol is something other than a person, such as national flag or a national emblem, something to which no-one has any particular objection. Regarding the use of a specific individual as a symbol would mean a personality to which none of the people in the country would object and that would be respected. However, even the Emperor has a personality of his own and would therefore be required to refrain from making direct remarks in order to maintain the authority that is expected of an individual in his position. The prime ministers and presidents who are the leaders of modern-day democracies need to speak eloquently at all times. People in all walks of life are allowed to actively express their views and pursue self-fulfillment. On the other hand, the Emperor is guaranteed an important position without officially uttering any word.
The tenno system and democracy are completely contradictory. In my view, leaving the unexplainable contradiction unaddressed could quite negatively affect the development of logical thinking among the people.



*1 : Calculated based on the table of trends in the budget of the Imperial Household Agency on the agency’s website and other data.

*2 : Based on NHK’s opinion poll conducted in November 2009

*3 : The tenno has been deeply linked with Shinto since the early days of the family. When, in the Meiji Era, the legendary Amaterasu (Sun Goddess) was uniformly determined as the most important deity of Shinto, the government created the State Shinto system, elevating the tenno, who was considered a direct descendant of Amaterasu, to divine status. After the war, separation of religion and politics took place, but there is still a strong awareness of the tenno as the central presence in the Shinto religion and this stems from the divinity of the tenno passed through the blood line of emperors (banseiikkei).

*4 : In Japan, the differences between seken (community) and shakai (society) are unclear, but there are differences between the two. The Japanese political system changed rapidly from military rule in the Edo period to a modern state in the Meiji period. For this reason, it can be said that a closed village mentality and the mentality of townspeople who lived in small communities began to be applied to Japanese society as a whole during this period of transition and survived after the Meiji period. Seken represents this concept of closed human relationships between people who share the same identity. Generally speaking, the seken mentality is easily swayed by authority and is averse to being different from others. Shakai refers to a collection of people who share an urban mentality, and who have more autonomy and a broader awareness.

Eizo Nishio, Sept 2017


Modern Japanese Society and the Tenno System (Japanese emperor system)


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