The Ancient Rites of the World’s First Postmodern Society

Why Japan clings so tightly to its traditions—including the monarchy.

People play drums during a ceremony to celebrate the accession to the throne of the new emperor in Tokyo on May 1.
People play drums during a ceremony to celebrate the accession to the throne of the new emperor in Tokyo on May 1. Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, in Japan’s Imperial Palace, court chamberlains presented Crown Prince Naruhito an ancient sword and jewel. In accepting them, he was formally recognized as Japan’s new emperor, only the fifth in the past 150 years. Along with an equally ancient mirror, the sword and jewel comprise the Imperial Regalia that have been passed down through generations of the world’s oldest continuous monarchy. No one but the emperor and a few senior Shinto priests is actually allowed see the sacred treasures, but in taking charge of them, Naruhito became Japan’s new sovereign. At a later enthronement ceremony (sokui no rei) in October, he will appear in elaborate ancient court robes inside a gazebolike structure topped by a golden phoenix and containing a simple throne. His wife, Crown Princess Masako, will sit in even more elaborate robes inside her own throne enclosure.

Unlike much of the modern world, Japan holds fiercely to many of its traditions. In a country often billed as the world’s first postmodern society, the reality is that modernity and tradition dwell side by side, sometimes uneasily but largely in unacknowledged harmony. It is perhaps this stability that has helped Japan navigate the pitfalls of the past 30 years, since the popping of its economic bubble in the late 1980s, when Emperor Akihito ascended the throne.

When Akihito was enthroned as emperor in November 1990, his father, Hirohito, had been dead for almost two years. Akihito represented an evolutionary step in Japan’s imperial system. His father had come to the throne in 1926, controversially reigning during World War II. Hirohito’s grandfather, Emperor Meiji, was the first emperor in Japan’s modern period, starting in 1868. He was a constitutional figurehead who nevertheless had great influence over his government. It was his restoration of the imperial system after 700 years of samurai rule that reintroduced a host of real and imagined traditions surrounding the emperor, many of which were used to unify the country and give it an unambiguous polestar through a period of dramatic socio-economic change. It also helped prop up Tokyo’s imperialist policies during the 20th century.

Yet in the decades after World War II, both Hirohito and Akihito strove to modernize the image of the emperor, wholeheartedly embracing their constitutionally circumscribed roles in line with the U.S.-written postwar constitution. As Japan rapidly recovered after the war, the imperial house acted as a stabilizing element in a country that was becoming ever more urbanized, technologically advanced, and internationalist. Precisely because the emperor was thoroughly insulated from domestic politics, he was seen as the ultimate symbol of the Japanese nation and a tie to a familiar past that was quickly disappearing.

Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, broke tradition in other ways, as well. She was the first imperial consort not of royal blood. Rather, she was the daughter of a successful industrialist. Their courtship was played out in public (literally, as they met while playing tennis), and the excitement surrounding the wedding of the dashing young prince and his bride in 1959 equaled the fervor over Charles and Diana’s marriage two decades later. Since then, the emperor has sought to atone for Japan’s World War II atrocities, in part by refusing to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are enshrined, and has been a persuasive representative of the nation abroad.

Unlike other royal families, the inner life of Japan’s imperials is tightly shielded from public view. If there are scandals among them, little word, if any, ever gets out. Yet their outside activities have replicated much that the world finds admirable about Japan, such as its focus on education. Like his father before him, Akihito is a recognized marine biologist, while soon-to-be Emperor Naruhito has degrees in history. Naruhito’s younger sister, Sayako (who left the imperial family when she married in 2005), studied ornithology, and their various cousins also have pursued advanced degrees. And all the royals act as patrons of various nongovernmental social, educational, and cultural organizations.

It might seem that the imperial system would then be of little overall utility in Japan, simply the object of veneration of conservatives, a reminder of Japan’s imperialist past, and a family almost stultifyingly normal by any other measure. But support for the institution is deep, and the imperial system is an inextricable thread in the fabric of Japan. As one Japanese scholar told a longtime observer of the country, “If there’s no emperor, what is Japan?”

It is this tenacious sense of national uniqueness, exclusionary yet modern, that accounts for the continued existence of the Japanese emperor. On the grounds of the Imperial Palace at the heart of Tokyo lie several imperial shrines meant solely for the emperor to carry out his unique duties. He still offers prayers for the nation daily and during auspicious times of the year, such as New Year’s—though as a private citizen, thanks to the postwar separation of church and state.

Yet the line between politics and religion is tested in other ways. The emperor both plants the country’s ceremonial first rice seedlings and harvests them every year, offering them to the sun goddess Amaterasu; this year, since it will be the first harvest of the new emperor’s reign, it will have a special name: the daijosai. Here’s how the New York Times described a different daijosai in 1990:

In two primitive thatched-roof shrines dimly lit by torches and bonfires, Emperor Akihito concluded a solitary all-night vigil of prayer and thanksgiving this morning as part of his accession to the throne, amid a continuing dispute over whether the rites transformed him into a “living god.”

It is at his first autumn harvest festival that the emperor supposedly communes with Amaterasu, thereby partaking of part of her divinity. In prewar Japanese thinking, the act led him to become a “living god,” a theologico-political status that was dropped only in 1946 at the insistence of the U.S. occupiers of Japan. As it did in 1990, the continuation of this apparently ancient rite will rile anti-monarchists and those who believe that Japan should still be held accountable for the aggression committed in the name of the new emperor’s grandfather.

But for the overwhelming majority of Japanese, such rites are central to their sense of nationality. The emperor and his family have proved to be the unchanging foundations of a country that has struggled since the early 1990s to recover from its economic stagnation and which has seen its role on the global stage usurped by a China far more powerful than Japan ever was at its height.

Some observers fear the country is turning more inward—becoming more conservative under long-serving premier Shinzo Abe. But it is equally likely that Japan has simply become comfortable in its postwar, post-bubble reality, that it sees the race between the United States and China for supremacy and knows it will be left behind no matter who wins. In that world, the imperial family is both a link to the past and a reassurance that regardless of what comes next, Japan contains an identifiable, perhaps eternal, kernel of greatness.

Michael Auslin is the Payson J. Treat distinguished research fellow in contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics. He co-hosts The Pacific Century podcast at Hoover.

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