He is author of the book Enigma of the Emperors: sacred subservience in Japanese history, which has been called an original study on the institution of the Japanese emperors, from their mythological beginnings to the present day, and focuses on the continuity of the Japanese dynasty, which is unknown anywhere else in the world.
He was awarded the prestigious Japan Foundation Award for Japanese Studies and Intellectual Exchange in October 2010. The Foundation said he has made an immense contribution to the development of Japanese studies and to the promotion of intellectual exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and other nations.
He has taught and conducted research at various institutions, including Harvard University, the University of Oxford and the University of Tokyo. In 2000, he was awarded the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Star.
From his home in Israel, where is Professor Emeritus of East Asian history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he answered questions from Majirox News about the past and future succession to the Japanese throne.
How is the Japanese monarchy different from monarchies in other countries?
The Japanese monarchy is significantly different from monarchies in other countries. First of all, it is the oldest. Not only is the institution of the Japanese emperor the oldest in the world, but also the dynasty itself is the oldest; it is so old that it does not even have a name. Since the beginning of Japan as a unified state, sometime in the middle of the first millennium, for more than 1,500 years, the same family has occupied the Japanese throne. Nothing like that has occurred in other monarchies.
Secondly, unlike in other monarchies, the Japanese emperors, at least in the last 1,200 years, did not rule. They did not decide policies, did not command troops, did not wage wars, did not administer the country, did not judge and did not decide on matters of faith. Their role was to legitimize what others who ran the state decided.
Thirdly, despite their political and military weakness, their status, sanctity and prestige were so strong that no one, not even the strongest aristocratic and military rulers, dared to usurp their position and replace their dynasty. This was totally different from other countries, where those who wielded power declared themselves kings and emperors.
How did the emperors bring about change?
Despite being a conservative institution, the emperors also served as vehicles of change. In the 7th and 8th centuries, they legitimized the introduction of Chinese civilization into Japan. In the 19th century they legitimized the introduction of Western civilization. In that way, Japan could undergo great changes without disintegrating.
Finally, the Japanese emperor is today the only emperor left on earth, although Japan is not anymore an empire. The Japanese emperor enjoys the highest royal rank in the world, but his legal status is the lowest. He has no powers at all and officially he is not even head of state.
Asserting that the Japanese royal family has been in existence 1,500 years and has consistently inherited the throne, goes against what many people say are the facts of history. At the battle of Dan no Ura, the emperor committed suicide (or was forced into it) when his attendant (he was five years old) jumped overboard with him. Later during the North/ South dynasties, when two different dynasties claimed to rule Japan, both lines of the royal family apparently died out. This was in the middle ages. In fact, the unbroken descent of the Royal family is considered complete fiction by some scholars.
The unbroken descent of the imperial family and the assertion that it has been in existence for at least 1,500 years are not fiction, but facts based on written authentic records. This does not mean that the throne passed always from father to son. Quite often it passed to brothers, nephews, cousins and uncles. Sometimes it even went to distant male relatives, but it always passed to males, and in a few cases women, of the imperial family in the male line.
At the battle of Dan no Ura in 1185, the fleeing army of Heike (Taira) took with them the 5-year old Emperor Antoku as they boarded the boats. When they realized that everything was lost, the emperor’s grandmother, who was with him on the boat, embraced him and jumped with him into the sea where they died. The victorious Genji (Minamoto) then installed another member of the imperial family, the 3-year old Go Toba on the throne in Kyoto.
During the period of the “Southern and Northern Courts” (Nanboku-cho), which lasted from 1336 to 1392, two branches of the imperial dynasty fought each other. These were not two dynasties, but the “northern” and “southern” branches of the same dynasty. The northern branch finally prevailed and the southern branch died out. The present emperor is a descendant of the northern branch.
It is amazing how wrong the popular stories about the imperial dynasty can be. These are not speculations about ancient times, where we have to rely on flimsy evidence, but well recorded historical events.
Is it true that harassment by the Imperial Household Agency (Kunaicho) — focused hatred of outsiders by the small inner circle close to royalty–has driven both the Empress and Princess Masako into repeated nervous breakdowns and, if so, what is the impact on Masako’s marriage?
Contrary to a widely held belief like its predecessor the prewar Kunaishō (Imperial Household Ministry) is not an obscurant, outsider-hating institution. If we look at the persons who headed these institutions, we can see that most of them were broad-minded people with a liberal education, and some of them were even Christians. They initiated democratic changes of the imperial institution.
During the postwar reign of Hirohito, they supported the close collaboration with the allied occupation, the far reaching reforms of MacArthur, the downgrading of the emperor to the status of a symbol, the marriage of Crown Prince Akihito (the present emperor) to a commoner (Michiko), and the tours of the emperor in Europe and the U.S. The image of the Imperial Household Agency as a super-conservative, oppressive and narrow-minded organization is a myth.
I personally know people who served and serve in senior positions at that agency. Most of them are broadly-educated former diplomats. Their purpose is to preserve this ancient and important institution and protect it from dangerous trends from the right, from the left and from the intrusive media.
I do not think that the difficulties of Empress Michiko and Princess Masako stemmed from harassment from the Kunaichō. In the case of Michiko, there was a negative attitude from the former empress and other women in the imperial family toward the commoner and Catholic-educated princess. In the case of Masako, there was a psychological pressure on her to produce a son.
Critics say Masako’s face shows classic signs similar to combat fatigue, particularly drooping left eyelids. What is the story behind her going to Holland to seclude herself in one of the palaces there? And why is the Dutch Royal Family, particularly the Queen so sympathetic to Masako? Is there a link? Or is the foreign press reading more into it than there is?
Princess Masako seems to be suffering from some kind of depression as a result of her difficulty to adjust to palace life and her failure to produce a son. That does not mean that all commoner women who marry an imperial prince suffer and are depressed. Princess Kiko, wife of Prince Akishino, adjusted well to palace life and does not seem to be depressed.
The reason that Princess Masako went to Holland is that her father, Owada Hisashi, a former senior bureaucrat at the Foreign Ministry, was appointed in 2003 a judge in the International Court of Justice, which is located in The Hague. In 2009, he was elected President of the International Court of Justice. Princess Masako preferred to rest near her parents. I don’t think there are any special links between the Dutch royal family and the imperial family of Japan.
Is it true that the Crown Prince and Masako are husband and wife only in name, and there is no chance at all of Masako giving birth again?
I have no idea about what is going on behind the closed doors of the crown prince and princess, and I don’t think that we should speculate about it. I do know that Crown Prince Naruhito loves his wife and respects her. Princess Masako is 47 years old, so I agree that there is little chance of her giving birth again.
What are the chances, if any, of the next ruler of Japan after the Crown Prince, being an Empress?
The Imperial Household Law, promulgated in 1889 and amended in 1947, excludes women from the throne. Therefore the successor of Crown Prince Naruhito will be his nephew Prince Hisahito, and not his daughter Princess Aiko. This is a modern development, because in the past there were eight reigning empresses, two of whom reigned twice under different reign names (no such thing ever happened with male emperors). The last reigning empress, Go-Sakuramachi, occupied the throne from 1762 to 1771. Changing the law and enabling women to ascend the throne would not contradict Japanese tradition.
The problem is who will succeed the female emperor. In the past the throne always reverted to males of the imperial family. No male from another family could inherit the throne through adoption or marrying an imperial princess. However, nowadays there are no bachelor imperial princes whom a future empress could marry.
If she marries a commoner she will have to leave the imperial family, as happened with Princess Nori, who became Mrs. Kuroda. Replacing the existing male line with a mixed male and female line, like the one in European monarchies, has never existed in Japan and the idea to introduce it into Japan faces great opposition.
The second part of our interview with Ben-Ami Shillony will be posted on Friday.