AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 500

[ Japan Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 500: Rethinking Monarchy in Modern Japan

Organizer: Frederick R. Dickinson, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Chair: Richard J. Smethurst, University of Pittsburgh, USA

Discussant: Kazuhiro Takii, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Japan

This panel introduces a new generation of scholarship on monarchy in modern Japan. Originally focused on the structure of imperial rule in Meiji and Showa, examinations of Japan’s modern emperors have, over the years, expanded in conceptual and temporal range. No longer mere objects in the study of war responsibility, Japan’s emperors are prisms through which to explore Japanese state, society and local, national, even global culture from the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. Reflecting the eclecticism of the new scholarship, the panelists represent a range of specialties—political, intellectual and social history. And they highlight developments from the nineteenth century to the present. Kyu Hyun Kim exposes the complex interplay among ruler, multiple guardians of his image and subject during Meiji to lessen the mystery surrounding the notion of imperial “divinity.” Frederick Dickinson offers a rare glimpse of Taisho and suggests that Yoshihito and his age, not Meiji or Showa, are most representative of modern trends in monarchy, in Japan and the world, through today. Ito Yukio undertakes a meticulous study of newly released primary materials and offers a new reading of war responsibility as part of a larger investigation of the workings of constitutional monarchy. Kenneth Ruoff returns to ruler-subject ties and locates the year 2,600 celebrations (1940) squarely within the global context of war mobilization. Japan’s emperors, we understand with this new generation of scholars, offer as much insight into the modern world as into political and cultural developments within Japan.

Many Avatars of the Mikado: "Divinity" and "Corporeality" of the Meiji Emperor
Kyu Hyun Kim, University of California, Davis, USA

During the Pacific War, the Allies portrayed Japan, as irrational, fanatical, and religiously inspired by an emperor considered the “divine” paterfamilias for the nation. Against this still iconic image, John W. Hall, Carol Gluck and others have persuasively argued that the Meiji emperor was a complex mix of traditional and modern, and for the majority of the Japanese public, a symbol of modernity on a par with the steam locomotive. Yet there is still much to learn about the Meiji emperor’s power, especially where his religious, cultural and political authorities overlapped. What does it mean that Japanese subjects regarded him as a “living god?” What ontological, spiritual and political features did Meiji leaders impart to the emperor and for what purposes? How should we interpret iconic representations, the emperor’s national tours, reformulated Shinto rituals performed by the emperor, etc. that sought to bind the emperor to the Japanese people? Drawing upon the Meiji tennō-ki, contemporary media and academic discourses, papers of state ideologues like Motoda Nagazane and Inoue Kowashi, and the latest research on Meiji era religious, political and cultural history, this paper will focus on the complex relationship between the “emperor-system ideology” and various “failed” state initiatives, such as the campaigns for direct imperial rule (shinsei) and for maintaining the emperor’s sacerdotal function through a “correspondence of rites and statecraft (saisei itchi).” The aim is to move beyond the vision of Japan’s modern emperors as either political puppets or cultural icons with no political substance.

Taisho Ishin: Restoring Taisho Centrality to the History of Japanese Monarchy
Frederick R. Dickinson, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Reigning for the briefest interval and incapacitated the last seven years of his life, the Taisho Emperor understandably receives the fewest accolades of any modern Japanese monarch. But historians and the popular imagination have erred in allowing Yoshihito’s father, Meiji, and son, Showa, to define the history of monarchy in modern Japan. If modern Japan is the transformation from feudal realm to modern state, Mutsuhito deserves centrality. If it is a history of war, Hirohito merits top billing. If, on the other hand, we examine Japan within the larger context of global history, Yoshihito demands our principal attention. Despite a record of illness, contemporaries did not know Yoshihito as an “infirm” royal. Rather, from birth to death (1879 – 1926), Yoshihito, more than his celebrated and increasingly numinous father, symbolized burgeoning Japanese modernity. At a critical time of transition for monarchies across the globe, Yoshihito embodied all the hopes of his subjects for the twentieth century. This paper will examine Yoshihito within his contemporary world. During his lifetime, Yoshihito symbolized a unified, industrialized, modern empire on a par with the most advanced powers on earth. Yoshihito’s personality, moreover, fit the cosmopolitan tenor of the new century the way his father never could. Proponents of war swiftly replaced this cosmopolitan image with one of Taisho “infirmity” in the 1930s. But the Japanese monarchy that we know today rests more upon the institutional innovations under Yoshihito than on the hybrid world of his father or the age of total war.

The Showa Emperor and "War Responsibility"
Yukio Ito, Kyoto University, Japan

Based upon many newly released primary source materials related to the Showa Emperor’s advisers, historians have, in recent years, begun to argue that Hirohito willfully took Japan to war. Indeed, by refusing an imperial audience, the emperor had the power to force out of office the prime minister, cabinet ministers and an entire array of government office holders. But Imperial Japan was a constitutional system. Those unhappy with the imperial will could, by resigning or refusing to replace a Minister of War, for example, place the emperor in an untenable position. Lacking the authority of his grandfather Meiji, the Showa Emperor constantly struggled to express his political will. And after 1945 until his death, he continued to feel a sense of moral responsibility for the war. This paper will consult a wide range of primary source materials to reveal a true picture of the Showa Emperor.

Embracing the Unbroken Imperial Line Ideology Through Labor Service
Kenneth J. Ruoff, Portland State University, USA

Historians who dismiss fascism as a useful analytical tool for wartime Japan invariably stress the lack of a mass political party like the Italian Fascist Party or the Nazi Party in Germany. The absence of a mass party, however, should not divert attention from developments at the popular level during this period. There was a mass participatory component to the 2,600th celebrations of the unbroken imperial line whose jingoism, at least in its 1940 form, matched that of Nazism or Italian Fascism. In the two years prior to the anniversary year 1940, more than 1.2 million volunteers went to Nara Prefecture to expand and beautify the many imperial tombs and important shrines in the prefecture. The movement functioned primarily as hands-on citizenship training. What better way for Japanese subjects to grasp the awesome significance of the foundational moment than to improve the roads and paths leading to Emperor Jimmu’s Mausoleum? That such voluntary labor served primarily spiritual rather than economic goals is evidenced by the fact that many volunteers took time off from their regular jobs to perform it. Although this labor was never institutionalized to the same degree as the Reich Labor Service in Nazi Germany or the Civilian Conservation Corps in the United States, it was comparable to the Reich Labor Service in its pedagogical function.

From Modern to Sacred: The Spiritual Turn of the Taisho Empress and the Pacific War
Takeshi Hara, Meiji Gakuin University, Japan