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Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Ever since I blogged about the anti-Japanese protests in China, I have been having a dialog with a number of people about Japanese history. One of my Chinese friends recommended "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" (Herbert P. Bix) for a more objective and critical view of the Emperor's role in the War. I am reading the book now. I believe this book does a great job of uncovering a fairly systematic coverup by the US occupation and the Japanese media of the role of the Emperor in World War II. However, I do think that Bix tends to makes some conclusions based on the facts he uncovers that I would not necessarily agree with. It is, in any case, a very good book for anyone interested in Japan to read.

With this fresh in my mind, I visited Kyoto, my home town, and was amazed at just how much Japanese tradition is organized around the Emperor. The Emperor went though various levels of influence in the governing of the nation, but has remained in place for 125 generations. Regardless of his level of influence, the Emperor has been the center of most of Japanese culture. Kyoto, for instance, is divided into the "Right Kyoto" and the "Left Kyoto". This has nothing to do with East or West, but is the right or left side of the city when viewed from the Emperor. The bullet train "climbs" from Kyoto to Tokyo (the new capital) toward the Emperor and any road that points away from the Emperor is pointed "down". All kinds of symbols and names allow you to understand exactly what each Temple's relationship to the royal family is. Maybe it was just our guide, or maybe it was that I was sensitized, but I think he talked about the Emperor in almost every explanation he made.

I question whether we should still have an Emperor in Japan and I believe that the facts about the Emperor's involvement in the war should be more publicly known. However, I wonder how the cultural foundation of Japan will change if the Emperor and the royal family were removed.

I have Flickr'ed the trip.

UPDATE: Movie of geisha dance uploaded to and part 2. (And an older one from a previous trip...)

UPDATE: Related Article - Sanji-Chion-Ji


Thank you for posting the dances. The second song I still rmember hearing as a child.

There is an academic concept that has been around sometime to do with the 'invention of tradition' - the idea(fact) that many of the 'traditions' that are believed to go back a long way in history are actually quite recent, and moreover were made up by people. For example it's not well known that the Scottish custom of the kilt and tartan was actually more or less invented/created by an Englishman, and (if I recall rightly) in the 19th century.

If I'm not wrong, many of the 'traditions' around the Emperor were actually created around the Meiji era in order to create a ruler who could deal with those of other countries such as the English and Dutch on equal terms. At the time I'm fairly sure that the Emperor spent a lot of time travelling around Japan, and the government posted up notices telling people what to 'think' about the Emperor (who up until then had lived in Kyoto, and had absolutely no effect on the lives of ordinary people.) I know there was a lot of discussion around whether it was right or wrong to talk about Japanese people as the Emperor's 'children' vs. other terms (like kokumin) that had other overtones.

In the end I suppose he became a symbol for the Japanese Empire and a reason for people to go out and die (for him or for their country, I suppose.)

So was the emperor really a central part of Japanese culture for a long time? If you go back before the Meiji era, I think you'll find that most Japanese (meaning the bushi, the farmers, the artisans and the merchants) lived out most of their lives without much thought of the Emperor. (At most, maybe as much thought as Australians, Canadians or New Zealanders give to Queen Elizabeth - except that modern media lets us hear about the Queen in a much more immediate way than was possible then.)

Of course maybe now it's even more important for Japan to have a national identity that isn't based differences between Japan and the USA or China.

Ask your Chinese 'friend' if he/she can recommend a book about the real Chairman Mao, the many millions of Chinese he is responsible for killing, and how the American government's policies - through acts of commission and ommission - assuring the Chinese communist's takeover of the nation.

See how much of a friend this 'friend' of yours really is.

Thank you for the pictures. I hope it is not disrespectful, but I am using the tea room photo as my desktop wallpaper. and nature, not man v. nature.


I think Japan should keep the Emperor.
And the traditions too.

A lot of the British 'traditions', from 'trooping the colour' to 'Black Rods `traditional` refusal of entry of the State Opening of Parliament', originated in the 19th Century thanks to Queen/Empress Victoria.

Such traditions give a country a unique flavour in the increasingly homogenous world in which we live.

Can anyone refer a good link that explains just how much power Emperor Akihito has, if any, within the gov?

How was the turtle dinner this time ? ;-)

I'd love to come back there...

I don't have a good link, but unless I am gravely mistaken, the constitution written by Macarthur's people restricted him to being a ceremonial symbol of the nation. (Sovereignty was explicitly vested in the people, not the Emperor.) I don't recall that the office of the Emperor has any kind of standing in Japanese legal processes at all.

By comparison I imagine the British head of state might actually have quite significant powers under law, but which probably haven't been exercised since around the 19th century if not earlier.

Well the Emperor is practically a part of the bureaucracy. The kunaicho controls all aspects of the family life and the Emperor does not have many of the rights that citizens have. These days, their activities are quite controlled and some people want to ban the system out of human rights issues.

it would be interesting to consider this also in terms of "emperor principle" even if there is no emperor. to what degree do people desire a central reference point in their daily affairs, both at a micro level (e.g. "the man of the house" or the "mama-san of the ryokan"), also governors, prime ministers, and presidents. it seems like we prefer to have the principle in place even if the name is no longer generally used.

Supreme Court justices in Japan are technically appointed by the Emperor, but realistically his choices are very limited (he's given a short list of 'approved' candidates). Ceremonial, yes, and I've been told it's one of the ways the court gains legitimacy. A lot of the ways in which the current Constitution is written and the way the government is run calls back on traditional structures to give the government more legitimacy in the eyes of the people (or so the theory goes). For instance, the current Constitution is technically an amendment of the pre-war Constitution...not an entirely new document.

Anyways, I find the discussion of the Emperor's role interesting from a gender perspective as well. I recently posited in another community that one of the reasons we see a lot of practical gender inequality in Japan is because of the emperor-oriented society. Aside from a few minor exceptions, succession (therefore power, whether real or symbolic) thus far has always gone down the male line. The description I hear of the current debate over whether to allow the succession of Princess Aiko is that it's a "Constitutional crisis"....a Constitutional crisis to allow a daughter to inherit as a son does.

It is worth reading about kings and how the whole thing works. In the UK and Ireland, the law in general and land law in particular were based on feudalism. Feudalism is basically where the King owns the land (who got it from God, who made it) and he granted it, subject to conditions, to his lords in return for the promise of military support. Originally, the king's power was absolute, but a lot of the real power lay with the Lords, and the Magna Carta recognised the rights of the lords to the rule of law. (That is a very short summary, and I am no expert.)

Absolute feudalism made sense in England more than anywhere else, because England had been absolutely conquered by its new King in the Battle of Hastings.

It still is the case that the British Queen need not pay taxes (because the taxes are collected in her name). The Prime minister also consults with the queen on a weekly basis (Tuesday afternoons, I think).

You can draw a parallel between the Magna Carta and the rise in power of the Samurai in Japan. The pattern seems to be that a detente eventually has to take place between the absolute rulers and his immediate underlings. (You could argue that modern democracy is simply taking this a step further, to encompass people further down the pyramid, even though the pyramid remains fundamentally intact.)

I personally think that a monarchy can be an OK idea, because it provides continuity with the past. The monarch is also potentially a break on anti-democratic measures that a government with a large majority might try to push through. The post-MacArthur Japanese Emperor doesn't seem to have this sort of power, however.

Having a big, overwrought monarchy isn't a good idea, if only because it puts too much pressure and attention on the royal family and eventually ends in a lot of wreckage.

In European countries it is common to have a King who lives relatively modestly amongst his subjects. These are sometimes referred to as 'Bicycle Monarchies' (because they just cycle around, literally and figuratively).

I know that it's considered unusual and deeply uncool these days in Japan to walk around with a “real” camera ;-), but I must not be the only one regretting the pictures we might have seen if you had taken your DSLR/Leica/Hassy with you to Unryuin...

Hey Joi, glad you are reading Bix. He is a solid historian of Japan, a bit of an old-school Marxist, but has done an amazing job of synthesizing the Japanese scholarship on the topic (see his intro and footnotes for the Japanese sources he is basing this book on).

In our discussion of the book for my PhD orals prep. class, we focused our comments not so much on critiquing any specific empirical problems with his work, which is really solid (as is the Japanese work it is largely based on) but whether on not it is sufficient to show that the Showa emperor's often vocal and detailed involvement in daily affairs was critically important in determining policies on more than half a dozen occasions (the most celebrated being the end of the war).

Our feeling was that it may not be. However, having said that, I think the book does more than enough to dispel the illusion, still common amongst those outside of the broader political left wing community of Japan that the emperor was a passive and abused biologist who was dragged through the war (like the Japanese people, says the same legend) by a militarist conspiracy.

We have to be careful, however, that when we carefully dispel the "passive Japanese people / emperor" military conspiracy myth that has formed the foundations of postwar historiography within Japan, we don't let it get replaced with the "selfless but active emancipatory saviors of Asia" counter-narrative of the right wing which is prominently on display in Yushukan (at Yasukuni), in Kobayashi's mangas, in Sankei newspaper, in Bungei Shunjû, increasingly Yomiuri, and spewing from the speeches of all our favorite right wing politicians (Abe/Ishihara etc.)

As always, the story is far more complex.

I was also astonished to see how much of our traditions are "made up" -- artificial artefacts created when the modern states were created. I had learnt as much about Swiss national hero Willhelm Tell and was surprised to read the same kind of planned creation of "tradition" in Jansen's "The Making of Modern Japan".

Does your Chinese 'friend' have a book(s) about the forced occupation and absorption of Tibet, making it a provence of China?

Please share any title(s) he/she recommends with the rest of us.


Why does the emperor received special treatment ? Isn't that a sign that Japan is not a true democracy, that the government does not see everyone as equals?

I think Japan should get rid of the imperial family, turn the imperial palace grounds into a park for the people (in the way Central Park in NYC is), and give the money to the people who really need it.

And as for Kyoto, all those great temples will be, like in any other cities with old buidlings, monuments to ages past but is now no more.


Um, this post is about Japan, not China. Sometimes people get them confused but if you visit both countries it's like night and day. ;-)

Your Flickr show is beautiful. And what a demo of a flicrk feature I didn't much about!!

MV. Yes. I should have brought my Hasselblad. I took most of these pictures with my phone or my dinky Cybershot.

K.M. : Excellent point. I agree. The difficulty with accurate history is that at every peel of the onion layer, there is the risk of a counter narrative which is just as corrosive as the one you've just debunked. ;-)

Dave : I didn't respond to your first comment. (Assuming you're the same Dave.) Yes, I think the Meiji Emperor, rewrote quite a bit of the narrative about the Emperor and positioning the Emperor. It's interesting to note that generally speaking much of the Shinto religion was decentralized until this period. I've heard (I don't know how true this is) that as part of trying to "Westernize" the scholars at the time noted that most strong Western countries managed a centralized religion. They put the Emperor as the central figure in the Shinto religion and subsequently used this narrative a great deal during the war. The theory that I heard was that when Japan lost the war, it greatly damaged the Shinto faith which had by then become associated with the war and the right wing. My family is Shinto and although I'm not a great expert, the Shinto that I know is very different from the Shinto of the Japanese military.

Interesting about the "down" and "up" directions. I wonder if the same concept is expressed in Nara or Kamakura which were also "capitals" before Kyoto was.

Thank you Joi, for sharing the photos of Sanji-Chion-Ji.

20- Joi Ito - 'MV. Yes. I should have brought my Hasselblad.'

A finely crafted, state-of-the-art, digital Nikon or Canon's all ya need.

It's what the pro's use.

Dear Joi, I think you're quite right about there being a distinction between State Shinto and what is often referred to as Folk Shinto.

The theology behind State Shinto was developed by Kokugaku scholars (often translated as Nativist Studies) during the late Tokugawa period as a foil against not only the West but also Neo-Confucianism of the Shogunate. So as you point out, Meiji leaders centralized Shinto with all the frills of a great religion (ceremonies, scriptures, etc.), gave the emperor a sacred aura, and used him to legitimize Japan's sovereignty.

Folk religion in Japan, on the other hand, was much less centralized, as you say. People mixed indigenous religions with elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and even Christianity. It was a much more fluid affair.

By the way, you mention that your family is Shinto. If I may ask, does your family belong to any specific branch of Shinto?

Tak: The reason I am Shinto is actually pretty stupid/trivial. My grandmother got in a fight with the Buddhist monk and liked the Shinto priest a lot better so we switched. We'd always been very friendly with the Shinto Shrine and she was the one who formally switched us. I'm the 17th generation in that particular house near the local shrine and we've always had a pretty good relationship. I've never thought to ask what branch... But it is definitely pretty local. I think (possibly) the Shrine moved in when our family did, around 17 generations ago when our family fled from Hiraizumi... I've been meaning to do a bit of history study on my home town. I should before all of my elders pass away I suppose.

Dear Joi, thanks for sharing this fascinating story about your grandmother! And 17th generations!: you have quite a prestigious house going. Hope one day you do have time to ask your family.

I don't want to make the commentary section about your personal family history, but I have one question. Japanese families often have their family cemeteries at the local Buddhist temple grounds. What happened your family cemetery when your grandmother joined the Shinto shrine?

;-) So our grave is at the Buddhist grave site, but the funerals we have are conducted by the Shinto priest. It's a bit weird, but they seem to deal with it OK.

Joi, where you write "the emperor has been the center of most of Japanese culture", I think I would write somthing like, "the emperor has been at the center of much of Japan's aristocratic culture." Some historians say that until the Meiji revolution, most inhabitants of Japan had never even heard of the emperor or of his claim to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami.

What god or gods live in the shrine near your house ?

Shinto religion and subsequently used this narrative a great deal during the war. The theory that I heard was that when Japan lost the war, it greatly damaged the Shinto faith which had by then become associated with the war and the right wing.

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Joi Ito has a fascinating post about the Japanese Emperor who, despite a varying level of influence through history, has certainly left a mark on the culture (Visiting the Old Capital).Regardless of his level of influence, the Emperor has been... Read More

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