TV & Radio
Liberal emperor?: Akihito continues his quest to overcome the legacies of his father.
(IHT/Asahi: January 4,2006)
By YU YOSHITAKE Staff Writer
This is the third part of a series on issues and topics facing the imperial family.
Part 1: Imperial Family/ Uncharted terrain:Those who do not want females or their descendants to become emperor feel stymied.
Seiichi Oike stood on a beach in front of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, got down on his knees, and then sprawled out on the sand face down.
Oike, 87, one of the few survivors of the Saipan battles during World War II, was "acting out" the ferocious battles he experienced on the island, where many poorly armed Japanese soldiers were totally overpowered by U.S. troops.
The emperor stared in awe. The empress leaned over for a closer look. It was the first time they had publicly seen such a demonstration overseas.
"The emperor's face became very tense when I showed how we tried to cope with the barrage of bullets by lying face down," said Oike, who accompanied the imperial couple.
The trip to Saipan in June, said to have been materialized on the emperor's initiative, paid tribute to the tens of thousands who died on the Pacific island during World War II.
It followed Akihito's years of gestures to heal the victims of World War II and to seek peace around the world. But some of his actions and words have been surprising--and have come under criticism from right-wingers and traditionalists.
For example, on Saipan, the emperor and empress made a detour that was not on the itinerary released to the press.
The imperial couple bowed deeply at a memorial to Koreans who died in the Pacific theater.
The Japanese government had not referred to this surprise stopover in its prior press briefing because it did not want to draw the wrath of those opposed to any apologetic gesture made by the emperor, sources said.
But it seems that any potential backlash would not have changed the emperor's desire to pray for the repose of all victims of the war.
Akira Hashimoto, who has been one of the emperor's close friends since childhood, said, "He is the kind of person who sticks to what he believes is right, no matter what others say."
After the surprise visit at the memorial, some critical views were also expressed in the South Korean media.
Dong-A Ilbo, a major daily, quoted Ryang Sun Im, a leader of the Association for the Pacific War Victims, as saying: "I don't know the state of the emperor's mind when he visited the memorial. ... If he is to sincerely atone (for Japan's past acts), he should take further steps to settle the problem of South Korean war victims."
Nationalistic sentiments in Japan are apparently growing. Students are being forced to stand for the Hinomaru flag and sing the "Kimigayo" national anthem, two perceived symbols of Japan's wartime militarism. Some history textbooks have been criticized as whitewashing Japan's past aggression. And the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, plans to revise Japan's pacifist Constitution.
But while scant diplomatic progress has been made over "history issues," such as Koizumi's repeated visits to war-related Yasukuni Shrine, sinking Japan's relations with China and South Korea to new depths, Akihito continues to stress the importance of reflecting on the nation's past.
Removing Hirohito's legacy
"The emperor has been trying to remove the negative legacies left from his father, Hirohito, one by one," said Hiroshi Takahashi, an imperial family watcher and professor at the Shizuoka University of Welfare. "What he has been trying to achieve with the empress is addressing the war-responsibility issue that his father could not settle."
The imperial couple have been to Okinawa Prefecture eight times since the 1970s, and visited other war-related places like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"Aspiring for peace is the emperor's fundamental philosophy, and that's exactly why he believes his life is inseparable from the pacifist Constitution," Hashimoto said.
The emperor's duties as a symbol of the people are in sharp contrast to those of his father during World War II, when Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, was the supreme military commander and was looked upon as a living god.
After the end of the war, Hirohito did visit many parts of Japan to develop closer ties with the people, but he never lost his aloofness.
However, in the Heisei Era, it has been a common sight for the imperial couple to voice words of encouragement and sit side by side with victims of natural disasters.
In mid-December, the imperial couple met with a group of widows who lost their husbands in World War II. For the participants, who are members of the Japan War-
Bereaved Families Association (Nippon Izokukai), the gathering in Tokyo was their first chance to talk with the emperor and empress.
One widow was so moved after meeting Akihito that she said, "Now that I have met you, I wouldn't mind if I just died right now."
The emperor warmly replied, "Oh no, I would like you to take care of yourself and live long."
In July, the imperial couple again showed their down-to-earth posture when they accepted a dinner invitation at a commoner's house in Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture.
The invitation was extended by Hifumi Watanabe, 39, and her husband, Junichi, 42, who are good friends of the imperial couple's daughter, Sayako.
The emperor and empress enjoyed the homemade dishes of seafood and vegetables, and engaged in lively conversation with nine members of the Watanabe family in a tatami-mat room for more than two hours, the Watanabes said.
Some traditionalists and right-wingers are critical of Akihito's behavior, saying that his affable style with commoners is disappointing and beneath an emperor's dignity.
No other option?
Others view him differently.
"The emperor has no option but to behave this way," said Yasukazu Amano, a leftist critic and a leading member of the Liaison Committee of Movements Against Tenno (the emperor) System.
"The imperial family has managed to survive after the war by making various efforts, including 'traitorous ones' in which a tutor was invited from the United States for then Crown Prince Akihito," Amano said.
"He would never want to find himself in a position where his people go to war because he witnessed the risk of his father being killed."
Whatever the reason, the emperor continues to pursue his quest, and startle many on the way.
On his 68th birthday in 2001, the emperor said he felt "a certain kinship with Korea," given the fact that it is recorded in the "Shoku Nihongi" (Chronicles of Japan, completed in 797), that the mother of Emperor Kanmu (reign 781-806) was of the line of an ancient Korean kingdom.
Akihito visited China in 1992 at Beijing's invitation, but he has never set foot in South Korea despite his desire to settle Japan's past.
The emperor apparently wants to visit South Korea, but a Foreign Ministry source says that trip has yet to make the diplomatic agenda.
Park Joon Sang, a South Korean businessman with a Ph.D. in political science, who studied the Japanese imperial system and Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula at Meiji University, said the emperor's personality remains unknown in South Korea.
Park published his doctoral dissertation in Japanese in 2003, but the book was never translated into Korean. He said he received several offers from South Korean publishers, but they all wanted to use the word Il-wang, a derogatory term for Japan's emperor.
Park rejected the offers for that reason, which he said illustrated his nation's hostility toward the Japanese emperor system.
"Unfortunately, if the emperor visits South Korea now, he will end up facing anti-Japan demonstrations and worsening the bilateral ties."
But Akihito's most recent remarks could help create a more favorable environment for a possible visit to South Korea.
Marking his 72nd birthday in December, the emperor again emphasized the importance of learning from wartime mistakes.
"I believe it is very important for the people of Japan to strive to accurately understand this past history, as well as the times that followed, and this is also important when Japanese people interact with the people of the world," he said at a news conference.
His words were carried by South Korean and Chinese newspapers.
The South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo said in its Dec. 24 edition: "The fact that the emperor made these rather rare remarks can be interpreted as the expression of his concern toward some right-wing elements that try to glorify or distort the history of Japan's aggression."(IHT/Asahi: January 4,2006)