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Opinion

Benefits of Japan's arcane imperial system outweigh costs

While critics dismiss royal institution as anachronistic, supporters see it as essential anchor

Emperor Naruhito performs his first ritual at the Imperial Palace, reporting the date of the enthronement to his ancestors.    © Imperial Household Agency/Kyodo

Does Japan need an emperor? That is the question some people might ask as newly installed Emperor Naruhito hosts his first formal imperial banquet, a lavish affair to honor visiting U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania, when they visit Japan in late May.

Naruhito is the nation's 126th emperor. Unlike his grandfather Hirohito, who enjoyed divine status until the end of World War II, he has no real political power but instead serves as a symbol of the state. He will spend most of his time presiding over public ceremonies like this one, that cost a lot of money.

By the time of Naruhito's formal enthronement in October, the cost of the succession process, including a series of elaborate Shinto rituals such as outgoing Emperor Akihito's personal report to the Sun Goddess, will amount to more than $33 million. In addition, more than $50 million will be spent annually on the Imperial family's official duties and several million more on private allowances. More than 1,000 people work at the Imperial Palace, a sprawling park-like estate in the heart of Tokyo, and more than 1,000 policemen provide security. Then there was the extensive and complicated reconfiguring of official documents and computer records to align with the Japanese calendar system that is based on each emperor's reign.

Most Japanese accept this situation without complaint, and public support for the imperial system has grown in recent years, reaching 70% or more, according to a series of NHK polls. "Japan without an emperor is like life without air," a Japanese government consultant in his 50s told me.

There are sometimes small leftist protests against the imperial system and a few influential voices, such as Tsuneo Watanabe, the long-serving editor-in-chief of the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, have questioned its value, saying it is a drain on government funds. The outspoken editor has, in the past,  often talked to me about tearing down the Imperial Palace and turning it into a parking lot, saying it would be a "better use of land."

The Japanese belief in the imperial system remains durable for several reasons. For one, it reflects a long historical tradition since it represents the oldest, continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, dating back to the seventh century B.C. when Japan was founded by the Emperor Jinmu, who was said to be a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Since the emperor was believed to be descended from the Shinto gods, or kami, his duty was to perform rituals to please the spirits governing nature, including those inhabiting the rice fields, and ensure the country's prosperity. "The imperial investiture ceremony is derived from folk rice festival customs," notes Peter Miller, a Kamakura-based artist and student of imperial culture.

Aware of how the imperial system was manipulated by hard-liners to generate support for Japan's militarism in the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. occupation authorities wisely chose to reconfigure the system along the lines of the British constitutional monarchy. The foreign image of Emperor Hirohito was transformed from an ultranationalist warlord to that of a bookish, gentle character who had studied marine biology.

Former Emperor Akihito visits survivors of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.    © Reuters

Akihito proved to be much more personable than his father, who remained a distant figurehead throughout his life. He married a commoner and met widely with ordinary citizens. One of the lasting impressions of his reign was the imperial couple's visit to survivors of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, where they knelt in front of older survivors and spoke with them at length about their concerns.

Akihito also traveled abroad extensively, especially to Southeast Asia, doing much to promote reconciliation between Japan and the region by apologizing for his nation's wartime sins, much to the chagrin of his country's conservative government. He also spoke out against human rights abuses and environmental damage.

As a result, respect for Japan abroad rose. Foreign leaders sought to meet Akihito and let it be known they were impressed by him. For a nation especially dependent on "soft power" to make its case to the world, the imperial family appeared increasingly to be a good investment.

Naruhito has pledged to follow his father's example. He studied at the University of Oxford and married a commoner, Masako Owada, a diplomat's daughter and a multilingual educated at Harvard university.

There are other benefits of the imperial system. With a government known for its self-serving politicians, Akihito was the model of an unselfish, if undeniably wealthy, representative concerned about the well-being of all. There are costs to maintaining the imperial system, but, it would appear that Japan is far better off with Naruhito as emperor than it would be without him.

Echoes of Shinto permeate daily life in Japan and it is the Shinto tradition that underlies continued support for the emperor. Although most Japanese do not think of themselves as religious, or of the emperor as remotely divine, Japan does indeed have a religion -- a spiritual identity -- that is based on the concept of "Japaneseness," or Nihonjinron. This is reflected in beliefs or practices that come so naturally and subconsciously that most Japanese never think about them. They are a part of everyday life -- for example, like saying "itadakimasu" before a meal. Although that phrase is not recognized as a religious act, it is actually meant to thank the kami for the food. This is Shinto in daily life -- subtle, but always there.

From the annual year-end house cleaning to removing shoes on entering a house, Japan's everyday rituals are so entrenched that nobody notices them. But most have their roots in Shintoism. Shinto weddings are the norm, as are Shinto rituals for the newborn, harvest festivals and visits to any of Japan's 81,000-plus Shinto shrines. Buddhism, meanwhile, governs funeral rites and ancestor worship.

"All of this is not fully understood to be spiritual in nature, but it is essential to being Japanese," says Hiroki Allen, a Tokyo-based business consultant. "Take away the rituals, ceremonies and customs and one will see Japan break down. Shinto permeates life here."

The emperor, atop the Shinto structure, is a symbol of all this. Showing support for him is a natural manifestation of being Japanese.

There is however certainly room for reform, particularly in the Imperial Household Agency, the anachronistic and secretive guardian of royal tradition. Some speculate that the rise of a more cosmopolitan younger generation in Japan, combined with the impact of the government's recent relaxation of immigration rules, may bring change. But given the fundamental entrenched nature of Japan's imperial system and its deep, almost subconscious ties to the people, that is not likely to happen very soon -- nor very easily.

Robert Whiting is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of books including "You Gotta Have Wa," and "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan."

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