The reason the Japanese monarchy has been so frequently misunderstood is that it is simultaneously a political and a cultural institution. The confusion is apparent even in the current Constitution of Japan (1947). Article 1 states, “The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” But is this a political or a cultural description? A constitutional provision would ordinarily be assumed to be political in nature. But what kind of political definition is “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people”? The word symbol is found predominantly in the context of subjects like religion and the arts; that it should crop up in the text of a modern constitution is actually rather mystifying.

To get to the bottom of the mystery, we must begin with a realization that the 1947 Constitution of Japan was created by Americans. It was drafted by Americans to suit American ideology and strategy during the Allied Occupation that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II.* Article 1 must be understood first and foremost as an answer to the strategic needs of the United States at that time.


Emperor Shôwa (Hirohito, r. 1926–89) presented a genuine dilemma for the United States at the outset of the Occupation. On the one hand, he represented the wellspring of something that Washington regarded as a continuing threat. On the other hand, he was indispensable to the Occupation’s success.

It was clear to anyone that the spiritual mooring provided by the emperor was the reason the Japanese had fought with such zeal and courage during the war. In the US document titled Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan, item (a) under Ultimate Objectives was to “insure that Japan will not again become a menace to the United States or to the peace and security of the world.” The surest means to that end, along with permanent disarmament through Article 9, would seem to have been doing away with the emperor, in both constitutional and real terms. In fact, public opinion in the United States at that time generally favored either executing the emperor or sending him into exile.

At the same time, the leaders of the Occupation forces were firmly convinced that the presence of the emperor was crucial if the Occupation was to continue peacefully. They recalled how the emperor’s radio broadcast announcing Japan’s acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration had brought about a surprisingly swift and complete cessation of hostilities. Not only that, but the Occupation had been virtually free of the kind of guerrilla attacks they had feared at the outset. It was obvious that this was a result of the deep spiritual bond between the emperor and the Japanese people. The Occupation leaders did not even want to contemplate the kind of pandemonium that might break out if they were to execute or exile the emperor.

The dilemma faced by the Occupation leaders left its stamp on the constitution that they drafted: While recognizing the existence of the emperor, the Constitution made that existence as powerless as possible.

In a memorandum known as the MacArthur Notes, dated February 3, 1946, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the US-led Occupation forces, provided Lieutenant Richard Poole, the drafter of Article 1 (The Emperor), with a list of “musts” to incorporate:*

• Emperor is at the head of the state.

• His succession is dynastic.

• His duties and powers will be exercised in accordance with the Constitution and responsive to the basic will of the people as provided therein.

In oral instructions, moreover, MacArthur made it clear that the emperor’s role as a monarch was to be strictly ceremonial. In its final form, Article 1 of the Constitution followed MacArthur’s guidelines almost to the word.

Ironically, Article 1—drafted without a thought to Japan’s history, political thought, or culture, simply to meet the Occupation’s immediate needs—actually comes very close to the essence of the Japanese monarchy with its amateurish and constitutionally inappropriate language. For the imperial institution contains within it aspects that transcend conventional Western political categories. Indeed, this was a major sticking point for the drafters of the 1889 Constitution as well. In the first article of his own tentative draft, Inoue Kowashi (1844–95) used the term shirasu, which appears in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters; completed 712) in an attempt to emphasize that the control the emperor exercised over Japan was something different from the political power of Western monarchs.† As we shall see, the term symbol as used in Article 1 of the present Constitution has nuances that overlap with the word shirasu.

Most Japanese constitutional scholars of the postwar period have interpreted symbol as denoting a completely passive, ceremonial figurehead. However, as Poole emphasized in his explanation to Japan’s political leaders, the word symbol is not something one uses lightly. It is a word with the power to evoke religious and spiritual ideas and emotions—and indeed, that is precisely how the word should be interpreted to arrive at a correct interpretation of Article 1.

A symbol is commonly understood as something concrete that is used to recall something intangible and abstract. But what differentiates a symbol from a mere sign is the fact that the symbol itself often takes on the character of something sacred or august. For example, the cross is a symbol of Christianity. But far from merely “recalling” Christianity, it demands to be treated as something sacred in and of itself. To treat the cross with disrespect is to show contempt for Christianity itself.

Ôhara Yasuo of Kokugakuin University has focused on this semantic function of the word symbol and suggested that the idea of the emperor as symbol needs to be interpreted in the light of this more positive meaning of the word.* Calling attention to the “solemnity and majesty” and “sacred nuances” of the word symbol, Ôhara further argues that while the cross merely is the symbol of Christianity in a passive-role sense, the emperor actively symbolizes the unity of the Japanese people. Ôhara identifies this function of the emperor as the very essence of the Japanese monarchy. He has termed this concept “active symbolism.”

Since ancient times the foundation of political ethics within Japan’s imperial house has been the notion of caring for the people, referred to as the ômitakara (great treasure). This principle is the basis for any actual political action the court has undertaken, and at the same time it is put into practice in the form of the imperial rites, the prescribed Shintô ceremonies carried out by the imperial court. As Ôhara writes, “The imperial rites, performed since remote antiquity by every emperor as the nation’s high priest to honor the gods of heaven and earth and pray for the country’s peace and prosperity, have always been the nation’s most important public functions.”


The ancient Japanese term for politics, matsurigoto—literally, “ceremonial matters”—reflects the fundamental nature of the Japanese monarchy, in which ceremony is one of the pillars of government. At the same time, these rites and their function are an integral part of Japanese culture. For example, on the first day of the first month of the traditional lunar calendar, at the “hour of the tiger” (3:00–5:00 am), the emperor performs the rite known as Shihôhai, in which he pays homage to the four directions of the cosmos, wards off natural disasters, and prays for abundant crops. In the Niinamesai (Festival for the New Tasting), performed on the twenty-third day of the eleventh month, the emperor makes an offering of newly harvested rice to the deities of heaven and earth and eats it together with them. These imperial rites support the overarching aim of sôsei annei (welfare of the people), the fundamental principle of government, while at the same time mirroring the New Year’s and harvest festivals observed by the general population. In this way, the ancient Japanese monarchy is at once a political, religious-ceremonial, and cultural institution. The word symbol as used in the Constitution connotes the manifold nature of the imperial institution in Japan and in doing so aptly expresses the basic “constitution” (kunigara) of the Japanese nation.

As indicated above, however, that aptness is purely accidental. It would require numerous changes to turn the Constitution as a whole into something that embodies the character of Japan. To begin with, Article 1 itself contains wording that is utterly incompatible with the concept of the emperor as symbol—namely, the clause “deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”

The phrase “will of the people” (kokumin no sôi) is not in itself ill chosen. According to Edward Coke (1552– 1634), who discussed the concept in the context of Britain’s common law tradition, the “will of the people” in the true sense must be the cumulative wisdom of the people through the ages. The emperor as described above is in fact the embodiment of the will of the people when understood in this sense. However, as the history of political thought clearly shows, the ideology of nationalism emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century as a result of the rejection of concepts like “history” and “tradition.” And underlying this ideology was the premise that the relationship between a monarch and a people was by nature an adversarial one. Such thinking is totally incompatible with the nature of Japan’s imperial institution. To make Article 1 an appropriate designation of the emperor and his role, one must begin by deleting the words “with whom resides sovereign power.”

Another passage that conflicts fundamentally with the true nature of the “emperor as symbol” is Article 20, paragraph 3: “The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” Under this stipulation, an imperial rite like the aforementioned Shihôhai cannot be treated as a public function in which the state or any of its organs are involved, because it is a religious activity. But if these rites are nothing but private functions, how can they symbolize the unity of the Japanese people? And how can the emperor act as a symbol of the unity of the Japanese people without performing such rites as public functions? Put simply, Article 20 of the Constitution makes Article 1 impossible. A charter that embraces such a glaring contradiction in regard to such a fundamental principle can scarcely be called a constitution.


The source of these flaws is to be found in the circumstances of the Constitution’s creation—that is, the fact that an occupying force drafted it to suit its own convenience. But the responsibility for leaving it as it is lies with the Japanese people themselves, and the biggest reason for their failure to take action is their ignorance concerning their own traditions of political ethics and political thought. Before the Japanese can correctly communicate the nature of their culture and government to people overseas, they must grasp their own fundamental nature.

But the problem is far more serious than that, for in truth, the fundamental nature of the Japanese people, that is, Japanese culture itself, is on the verge of collapse. It was the novelist Mishima Yukio (1925–70) who initially sounded the alarm. In his critical essay “Bunka bôei ron” (1969; The Defense of Culture), published less than two years before he committed ritual suicide, Mishima pointed out that what some took to be the full flowering of culture in contemporary Japan was in fact the absence of real culture, an idea that he encapsulated in the statement, “Something has been severed.”

Culture is by nature an organic whole. As Ruth Benedict demonstrated in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946), Japanese culture in particular is an integrated whole in which the refined aesthetic underlying chrysanthemum horticulture exists in perfect harmony with the fearless spirit of the warrior.* But as Mishima saw it, the unity of the chrysanthemum and the sword had been severed. Having lost the sword, Mishima believed, Japanese culture had become “something lovely and harmless, the shared heritage of humankind.” And as such, it was no longer Japanese culture.

Mishima insisted that nucleus of the integrated, organic culture that embraced the chrysanthemum and the sword was none other than “the emperor as culture.” He explains the concept as follows, using the archaic term miyabi (courtly elegance).

Miyabi was the cultural essence of the imperial court and the people’s longing for it, but during troubled times, miyabi could even take the form of terrorism. That is to say, the emperor as a cultural concept held out his hand not only to the forces of state power and order but also to the forces of chaos.

Mishima points out that these seemingly contradictory aspects of miyabi are clearly expressed in such ancient sources as the Kojiki, in which one god, Susanoo no Mikoto, “turned the green mountains to parched mountains with weeping” over his dead mother, ascended to heaven and wreaked havoc, and finally, after being expelled from heaven, defeated the serpent Yamata no Orochi and became a hero. Moreover, while the ravages of Susanoo no Mikoto caused his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu Ômikami, to shut herself up in a cave, she was lured out again by the baudy singing and dancing of Ame no Uzume no Mikoto and the laughter of the other gods and goddesses. In other words, in miyabi, rebellion and order, poetry and government, laughter and tears were at all times united in a dynamic whole. The miyabi of the court elicited miyabi no manebi (emulation of miyabi) among the people, and Japanese culture developed through this interaction.

The miyabi no manebi Mishima describes continues even today, albeit in a very attenuated form. For example, in the ceremony of the Utakai Hajime (Imperial New Year’s Poetry Reading) held every New Year, a reader trained in traditional recitation chants poems by the emperor, empress, and other members of the imperial house, along with poems chosen from entries submitted by people from all over the country.

However, once reduced to such harmless programs to promote traditional culture, miyabi, in Mishima’s view, was no longer truly miyabi. Even under the 1889 Constitution, he argued, Japan “had been forced to sacrifice in large part the emperor as a freer and more all-encompassing cultural concept” in the process of attempting to express the essence of the Japanese state within the framework of a Western-style constitutional monarchy. By 1936, Mishima laments, “the imperial institution of the Shôwa era, bound as it was to the model of a Western-style constitutional monarchy, had lost the capacity to appreciate the miyabi of the February 26 Incident.”

The February 26 Incident of 1936 was an attempted coup d’état led by a group of junior army officers angry over the hardships endured by the common people, particularly in the northeastern Tôhoku district, and determined to bring about direct rule by the emperor through a “Shôwa restoration.” When the incident broke out, Emperor Shôwa unequivocally branded it a rebellion and ordered that it be forcefully quashed and its perpetrators punished. Mishima criticizes this decision, arguing that “an uprising for the sake of the emperor should be permitted as long as it does not violate cultural conventions.” Viewed objectively, however, such criticism is a bit unrealistic. A ruling emperor could never approve of a coup d’état in which his cabinet ministers had been murdered one after another, whether or not the perpetrators claim to be acting on his behalf. Here Mishima is asking the impossible, and he should have realized it.


Mishima Yukio beheld in modern Japan the loss of that which defined the country’s traditional culture (a phenomenon occurring all over the world) and was frustrated that instead of attempting to stem that process and preserve miyabi, the emperor himself was abandoning it. While this frustration is apparent in “Bunka bôei ron,” it finds its most extreme expression in the story “Eirei no koe” (1966; Voices of the Heroic Dead).

In “Eirei no koe,” the spirits of the junior officers executed in the wake of the February 26 Incident and those of the kamikaze pilots of World War II are given voice through the medium of a young man. They take turns denouncing the emperor, and at the end join their voices together in malediction, asking over and over, “Why did the emperor become a human being?” until the young man falls down dead, and the story ends. Mishima himself acknowledged that he was expressing his own resentment through this story. But again, viewed objectively, it is a curious sort of resentment.

The accusation, “Why did the emperor become a human being?” refers to Emperor Shôwa’s renunciation of divinity in the New Year’s address he delivered on January 1, 1946. However, to criticize the statement as the emperor’s own words completely misses the mark.

Of course, under ordinary circumstances the annual New Year’s address could be taken as the emperor’s words. Someone versed in the traditions of the imperial court and Chinese literature would write a draft and submit it to the emperor for review, incorporating any additions or corrections the emperor requested. But in this case, both the idea and the first draft came from the general headquarters of the Allied Occupation forces.

With the so-called Shintô Directive of December 1945 (Abolition of Governmental Sponsorship, Support, Perpetuation, Control, and Dissemination of State Shintô), the Occupation authorities had already banished from the political sphere the ancient Japanese religion that constituted the foundation of miyabi, but they were not yet satisfied. Although the Shintô Directive cut all official ties between government and Shintô, they believed that only the emperor himself could cut the emotional and spiritual bonds that lingered in the hearts of the Japanese people.

In fact, the emperor’s address incorporated almost verbatim the statement drafted by Harold Henderson: “The ties between us 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 and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.” The only part of the address that reflected Emperor Shôwa’s own wishes was the opening statement quoting Emperor Meiji’s Charter Oath of 1868.*

Someone once observed that the Shintô Directive and similar policies implemented by the Occupation were “like trying to cut smoke with scissors,” and Emperor Shôwa was said to have been very fond of that metaphor. The bond between the emperor and the Japanese people was never the product of “legends and myths” but was integral to Japanese history, and the notion of the Japanese as “superior to other races and fated to rule the world” is a laughably “false conception.” Furthermore, the term akitsumikami (living god) as applied to the emperor referred only to the sacred character of the person of the emperor as explained above; no Japanese person would ever have confused this idea with the Judeo-Christian concept of a single, absolute divinity. One could take scissors and snip such “false conceptions” to pieces without ever having the least impact on Japanese culture.

The mistake of those on the Japanese side—and a grievous one it was—was the failure to make this distinction clear in the Japanese translation by stating, for example, “They are not predicated on the fanciful conception that the emperor is comparable to the absolute God of Judaism and Christianity.” Instead, in a moment of apparent madness, they translated “divine” as akitsumikami. This was tantamount to denying the concept of the emperor as symbol. It was an unforgivable mistake on the part of the Japanese drafters.

But to respond to this mistake by hurling the accusation, “Why did the emperor become a human being?” was just as foolish, for it played right into the Occupation authorities’ hands. How could such an astute thinker as Mishima Yukio have made such an error?

One recalls in this connection the radio broadcast of August 15, 1945, in which Emperor Shôwa announced the war’s end. This imperial address to the people was highly exceptional in that it was based directly on the emperor’s own words.

In August 1945, with the cabinet sharply divided as to whether Japan should accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrender, the question was submitted to the emperor at an imperial conference, and he made the decision to accept the Allies’ terms. The emperor’s words, as recorded on that occasion, were directly incorporated into his address to the people. When people heard the emperor speak the words, “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable,” they followed them to the letter, enduring the humiliation of defeat and implementing the cease-fire with an obedience and discipline rarely seen in the history of warfare. But this was not simply servile obedience to the emperor’s will. Without explicitly stating it, the emperor had communicated to the people the same feelings he had tearfully expressed during the meeting: “I want to save my people, whatever may become of me.” This determination manifested itself in the military’s disciplined observation of the cease-fire.

That said, the announcement posed a difficult dilemma. The Japanese people had fought bravely and fiercely until then, not out of some rabid militarism but because they knew that people must at times fight to the bitter end, even when their cause is hopeless. They had made the existential decision to fight to the death rather than save themselves and live out the rest of their lives meaninglessly. Yet now the emperor was enjoining them to accept defeat and live. How were they to accept such a decision?

The moment of the emperor’s announcement, at noon on August 15, lingers in the collective memory of the Japanese as an indefinably unique moment. Many people recall a feeling of utter stupefaction. But only a very fine line divided those who regarded it as a sacred judgment that rescued the people from extinction from those who saw it as a religious betrayal. Why had the emperor’s soldiers sacrificed their lives declaiming the ancient verse, “If we go on the sea, / Our dead are sodden in water; / If we go on the mountains, / Our dead are grown over with grass. / We shall die / By the side of our lord”?* Was the emperor coldly rejecting their sacrifice? Deep inside, people were crying out, “Why are you telling us to accept defeat and live?” It seems to me that the accusation of the dead heroes in Mishima’s story was in fact a variation on this theme.

In truth, however, Emperor Shôwa was not rejecting the sacrifice of his people. When he said, “whatever may become of me,” he was expressing his willingness to sacrifice his own life if necessary. Given the mood within the Allied nations at the time, it seemed certain that acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration would mean the execution of the emperor, and he made his “sacred judgment” in full knowledge of that. This is clearly expressed in one of the poems the emperor wrote at the time: “I put an end to the fighting regardless of what would become of me / Thinking only of my subjects falling in battle.” This was the emperor’s answer to “If we go on the sea . . .” In other words, with this, the relationship between the emperor and the Japanese people became one in which they were willing to sacrifice their lives for one another. And surely this represents the pinnacle of the miyabi that Mishima described. Such a relationship obviously cannot be contained within the framework of the modern Western-style constitutional monarchy. Indeed, history offers nothing comparable anywhere at any time. This extraordinary miyabi is the very essence of the “emperor as culture.”

Whatever Mishima Yukio may have thought of Emperor Shôwa, this element of miyabi cannot have been lost on him. Indeed, his death by ritual suicide might well be understood as a final effort to revive the memory of such miyabi in the hearts of the Japanese people.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo.

*Edwin Cranston, trans., A Waka Anthology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), vol. 1, p. 155.

*In the past there has been little serious debate between the United States and Japan concerning the circumstances surrounding the promulgation of the postwar Constitution. In most cases, the imposition of the Constitution by the United States has been accepted on the grounds that it was permitted by the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration, which Japan had accepted. However, objectively viewed, the process was an outrage that should never have been permitted, and a sound relationship between Japan and the United States can never develop as long as we continue to sweep this key issue under the rug.

To begin with, the idea that the Potsdam Declaration implies a commitment to amend the Constitution is incorrect. Article 10 reads, “Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established,” but these were already guaranteed under the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan, and the “revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people” called for in the same article of the declaration could easily have been accomplished under the existing Constitution as well. Furthermore, Article 12 of the Potsdam Declaration pledges that the Allied forces will withdraw from Japan as soon as “there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government,” thus granting the defeated nation the freedom to choose its own form of government. Nonetheless, in February 1946, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied Powers in Japan, directed 25 officials within the Government Section of his general headquarters to draw up a constitutional draft—a task they completed in one week—and then forced the Japanese government to release it as the “Japanese government draft.” Deliberations on the draft were closely monitored and controlled, and thanks to the strict censorship that the Occupation exercised over public discourse, all these circumstances were kept secret from the Japanese people. This was a violation of the rules governing occupying armies put forth in Article 43 of the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, which requires the occupiers to honor the country’s existing legal system, not to mention a flagrant violation of the democratic principles that the United States was trying to incorporate in the new Japanese Constitution. This was really an atrocity against our nation. That the US Congress should turn a blind eye to this violation of international law all these years and then pass a resolution condemning the Imperial Army’s use of “comfort women” during the war is nothing but an extreme example of egocentric hypocricy.

*Richard Poole was neither a legal scholar nor an expert in Japanese studies but simply an American who had been born in Japan and lived there until he was six years of age. He had been chosen for no other reasons than that his great-great-grandfather had arrived in Uraga almost a century earlier along with Matthew Perry and that his birthday was the same as the emperor’s. That said, he did his job conscientiously, as the text of the article suggests.

Shirasu is an honorific form of the verb shiru, to know. Inoue believed that it expressed the idea of ethical government made possible by knowledge of the will of the gods and of the people’s situation.

*See Ôhara Yasuo, Akitsumikami kô shiron—gendai tennôsei e no shiza (A Tentative Theory of Akitsumikami—A Perspective on Today’s Imperial Institution) (Tokyo: Akebono Shobô, 1978).

*During World War II, the US Office of War Information financed studies of Japan by cultural anthropologists with the goal of developing a better understanding of the enemy. Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture was the outcome of such a study. It was translated into Japanese after World War II and, ironically, became a bestseller in Japan.

*At the beginning of his reign in 1868, Emperor Meiji delivered what has come to be known as the Oath in Five Articles, or Charter Oath: “(1) Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by public discussion. (2) All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state. (3) The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to pursue his own calling so that there may be no discontent. (4) Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature. (5) Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.” Emperor Shôwa quoted this in full at the beginning of his 1946 New Year’s address.—Ed.