Sometimes it seems almost comical how the modern, republican, secular, progressive world can get carried away with monarchies and their dynasties, princes, princesses and newborn successors. Like the British. But Japan and its change of throne are in a league of their own, one which deserves closer attention.
It has partly to do with the first transition of 1989. Since the end of the Cold War, heads of state, U.N. secretaries general and even popes have changed numerous times. On this matter, the Japanese have been outdone only by British Queen Elizabeth, who has reigned since 1952. But the fact that Japan now has only its third emperor since 1926 (Naruhito, following Hirohito and Akihito), is extraordinary. It’s unique that Japan is the last remaining empire in the entire world.
Only 130 years ago, most of the world’s population still lived in empires. The empires functioned in Germany, Austria, Russia (with the tsar), the Ottoman Empire (with the sultan), China, Iran (with the Persian shah), Ethiopia, Brazil, at times in France and Mexico and formally in British India. (The British king bore the title of Indian emperor.) Only Japan has an emperor today. Why did Japan maintain the imperial system? Why did it not succumb to revolution (as in China, Russia, Iran and Ethiopia) or to defeat in war (as in Germany, Austria and France)? It’s not just an academic question.
The founding legend of present-day Europe holds that after 1945 came the first success at not only defeating, occupying and trying enemies in court, but also at bringing them into alliances: joining Germany to NATO and the EU. But it didn’t work that way in Asia. The Americans managed to defeat and occupy Japan and try its war criminals, but potential allies in the neighborhood were not forthcoming. Accordingly, the U.S. concentrated on maintaining Japan’s stability. It blamed the war on the army, which it banned, but it retained the institution of the monarchy.
The Japanese-American film “Emperor” relates the story. The hard-bitten commander of the occupying army, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, concludes that though the emperor isn’t blameless, his guilt with regard to the outbreak of war can’t be proven, but it can be documented that he contributed to a smooth Japanese surrender, sparing months of fighting and hundreds of thousands of lives.
Now that three-quarters of a century has passed, we can see that MacArthur was right to preserve the monarchy, despite knowing that Hirohito wasn’t altogether innocent. If we compare the turbulence, wars and violence that China, Korea, Indochina and other areas underwent in the years following 1945, Japan, headed by an emperor, gives the impression of an island of stability and levelheadedness in a dangerous region, as also demonstrated by Naruhito’s present ascent to the throne.