Naruhito’s Enthronement and the Question of Imperial Divinity
Will Goddard takes a deeper look at Naruhito’s recent enthronement and its potentially troublesome correlations with imperial divinity.
On October 22nd this year, the new Emperor of Japan, Naruhito, took part in the second instalment of his formal enthronement ceremony. This ceremony was not a simple formality, however; it is a event steeped in religious practice and symbolism. The unbroken line of the Japanese imperial family, stretching back into the mists of time and legend, has throughout its history kept a certain divine character – lending its rulers unmatched legitimacy.
It was this very divinity that the Allies sought to dismantle after the Second World War. After Japan’s unconditional surrender in August of 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American general Douglas MacArthur went to Tokyo for an audience with the emperor Hirohito. He was tasked with identifying the main culprits of Japan’s aggression, and whether or not to try the emperor for war crimes.
This ceremony was not a simple formality, however; it is a event steeped in religious practice and symbolism.
Before his audience with Hirohito, he was strictly advised by the Japanese not to look the emperor in the eye and to treat him with due reverence. MacArthur ignored their advice completely; he looked Hirohito straight in the eye and shook him by the hand. Without uttering a single word, he had denied the emperor his divinity. Hirohito, unlike his cabinet ministers, was an especially reasonable man, and agreed to renounce his divinity for the good of his nation. On New Year’s Day of 1946, he issued his ‘Declaration of Humanity’, which denied that he was in fact a living kami, or god:
“The ties between us [the imperial family] and our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the emperor is divine (akitsu kami), and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.”
MacArthur was very careful to cultivate the image of the emperor as a mere man, and not the mystical living god as he had been portrayed. He stopped short of recommending the emperor to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, recognising the influence that the emperor had over his people. Instead, MacArthur decided to allow him immunity from prosecution provided that he comply and help pacify the country. To this day, the constitution of Japan, written after the Second World War, holds in Article 20 that:
“…The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”
Prior to this, the Japanese imperial dynasty was held as divine for almost its entire history. Shinto is the name given to the nebulous and diverse folk religion of Japan. In this religion, there are two kami or gods, Izanagi and Izanami, credited with the creating the Japanese archipelago, who had a child named Amaterasu – the sun goddess. She was thought to have sent her grandson, the legendary figure Ninigi-no-Mikoto to Japan, after which his great-grandson, the emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, established the imperial line. This dynasty supposedly still remains unbroken – although at times, especially in the sengoku and Tokugawa periods, it was military dictators known as shogun who wielded complete power. After the Meiji Restoration, when the emperor Meiji was restored as the Japanese head of state, the old idea of the emperor being a living kami was enthusiastically resurrected to secure the legitimacy of the imperial throne. The Meiji government issued an imperial re-script on education, designed to implant the idea of the emperor’s divine right in the minds of the young, and in the Meiji constitution of 1889, it is stated in the first article that:
“The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of emperors unbroken for ages eternal.”
And in article three: “The emperor is sacred and inviolable.”
Today, the Meiji era and the fever of Japanese nationalism is long since past, and the enthronement ceremony carries significantly less mystique. It does, however, remain largely unchanged. Emperor Naruhito, while not recognised as a living god, has already received in the first part of his enthronement ceremony the symbols of godhood that were given to each of his predecessors. Consisting of a sword, a mirror, and a piece of jewellery, these items were all, according to the Japanese folk religion Shinto, brought to earth by the legendary figure Ninigi-no-Mikoto – grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu. They were, and remain, a symbol of the emperor’s divinity and his descent from the goddess.
Emperor Naruhito, while not recognised as a living god, has already received in the first part of his enthronement ceremony the symbols of godhood that were given to each of his predecessors.
The second part, the actual enthronement itself, accompanied by shouts of ‘banzai!’, or ‘Long live the Emperor!’, will take place on the twenty-second of October. Later, in November, the third part of the ceremony will take place, in which the emperor will be united with the sun goddess herself. Naruhito will gain a shared sense of divinity with Amaterasu by eating sacred rice offered to the goddess and in turn, become the intercessor between Amaterasu and Japan.
Some Japanese recognise an inconsistency with these ceremonies and Japan’s postwar constitution, particularly with regard to the Japanese state’s involvement with religion. Others see it as an inviolable part of Japanese history, which, since the emperor does not hold any power, can bring no harm. It is also true that only a shell remains of what used to be. But some feat that, since the claim to divinity has not been dismantled, our current time has parallels to the eras when the shogun ruled. Perhaps, all that would be required for a revival of imperial sovereignty would be another Meiji Restoration-style sway in public opinion.