TV & Radio
Cover Story/ Quest for truth: What secrets did Japan's ancient emperors take to the grave? And will we ever know?
By HIROSHI MATSUBARA, Staff Writer
This is the fourth in a series on issues and topics facing Japan's imperial family.
Part 1: Imperial Family/ Uncharted terrain:Those who do not want females or their descendants to become emperor feel stymied.
A new challenge is being mounted that may eventually put the Imperial Household Agency in something of a tight corner.
Academics have long called on the agency to open imperial tombs to full inspection to resolve riddles of Japan's ancient past and put to rest lingering doubts about the authenticity of some of the final resting places of emperors.
All this time, the agency, the guardian of imperial tombs and all matters concerning the imperial family, has never accepted these requests on grounds that the "tranquillity and dignity of imperial ancestors" must be respected.
But now, a new twist is being added to the debate over imperial tombs.
It stems from Mayor Keisuke Kihara of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, who believes he has a game plan to put his city of 830,000 people on the map.
In a nutshell, he wants to promote a fifth-century burial mound that is said to hold the mortal remains of Emperor Nintoku. The keyhole-shaped mound is one of the largest burial monuments in the world.
Kihara wants the site designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Such listing would draw tourists to Sakai from all over the world, he says.
Kihara has strong community backing for the project, but he realizes he faces an uphill battle in trying to get the household agency to reconsider its stand.
"I will make every effort to pave the way to achieve this difficult goal before my current term ends (in 2009)," Kihara said.
His grand plan was a major plank of his campaign pledge in the October 2005 mayoral election.
Kihara is now preparing to set up a committee of experts to map out a strategy to win the household agency's cooperation.
It seems certain that his decision will reignite debate between the household agency and academics over how imperial tombs should be treated.
For its part, the agency takes the stance that imperial tombs, including those constructed during the Kofun Period (between the third and seventh centuries), should not be regarded merely as objects of academic inspection.
The imperial tombs controlled by the agency include those built for mythical emperors, such as Emperor Jinmu, Japan's first emperor.
He is said to have reigned between 660 B.C. and 585 B.C., according to the ancient chronicle Nihon Shoki, which was completed in 720.
About the first dozen in the chronicle's list of emperors are widely believed to be mythical figures created by court historians in the seventh century. Public support sought
Whatever the truth of the matter, Kihara is champing at the bit to change the status quo.
"The tumulus is a historical and cultural treasure not only for Sakai residents but also for the entire world," he said. "The question is whether it should be viewed only as a grave and be controlled by the Imperial Household Agency alone."
For the Nintoku tomb to be qualfied for recognition as a World Heritage site, it must be first designated as a national cultural treasure by the Cultural Affairs Agency.
But here the household agency is unbending. It currently controls about 900 imperial tombs and apparently has no intention of handing over control to either the Cultural Affairs Agency or local governments.
Sakai officials have already repeatedly asked the agency to reconsider, but to no avail.
The agency has told The Asahi Shimbun in a written statement: "The purpose of conventions on world cultural and natural heritage sites is for the signatory nations to join hands to protect treasures that face extinction or destruction. Imperial tombs are being used as imperial assets and are sufficiently managed and most properly preserved from the viewpoint of maintaining their cultural significance. Because of this, the agency believes that there is no need for them to be designated as historical sites nor for them to be registered as World Heritage sites."
"Since our request requires a change in the rules, the prospect of my plan succeeding is still not clear," Kihara said. "Success will depend on whether or not we can take advantage of public sentiment that calls for more openness in the way the agency handles the affairs of the imperial family."
Some scholars pin their hopes on Kihara because he may have put the agency on the defensive.
Last year, the agency was red-faced when Noboru Toike, assistant professor of history at Den-en Chofu University in Kanagawa Prefecture, produced agency documents that revealed for the first time its doubts about the authenticity of at least 10 imperial grave sites where emperors are supposedly buried. The scholar used the Freedom of Information Law to obtain the documents from the agency.
Based on his studies of public documents from the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, Toike pointed out that many imperial tombs, which do not have epitaphs, were hastily refurbished and designated in the late Edo Period (1603-1867) amid a wave of nationalistic sentiment calling for restoration of the emperor system. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 provided the finishing touch by politicizing the historical authority of the restored emperor system, he said.
Still, the agency shows no sign of wanting to re-examine its policy.
"Scholars' requests alone will not bring any change in the attitude of the agency," said Yoshiyuki Habuta, professor of archaeology at Senshu University and a former chief researcher at the agency's mausolea and tombs division. "The issue is a highly political one. Only strong public opinion demanding more access to the tombs could sway the agency." School teachers dismayed
The standoff is not limited to scholars and the Imperial Household Agency. Students also are being taught a version of history that may well be wrong in many areas.
The Gunge Elementary School in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, is a case in point. The city's Imashirozuka-kofun (ancient burial mound) is believed by most scholars to be the grave site of sixth-century Emperor Keitai. Yet, this is at odds with the agency's official position that Emperor Keitai was buried at Ota-Chausuyama-kofun, 1.5 kilometers west of Imashirozuka-kofun.
In August, about 2,500 local residents, including students of the elementary school, staged a mock ancient funeral by dragging a wooden chamber containing a replica stone coffin using materials resembling broken bits that were unearthed from inside the tomb's compound.
The event was based on the understanding that the Imashirozuka-kofun is the emperor's true resting place.
In fact, the Imperial Household Agency documents obtained by Toike indicate that even the agency's internal committee concluded in 1936 that the other tomb is highly likely where the emperor was laid to rest.
“Incredibly, our teachers still cannot tell their pupils much about the fact that the Imashirozuka-kofun is most likely the real grave," said Masahiro Miki, principal of Gunge Elementary School, located adjacent to the Imashirozuka-kofun.
"Any discussion concerning the authenticity of the designation of imperial tombs will be viewed as a challenge to the foundation of the emperor system and may draw severe criticism from some parents," he said.
For Yasuhide Hiramatsu, a 12-year-old at the school, all this talk of history is almost beside the point.
“I was glad the discoveries of burial figures at the tomb made me realize that my favorite place for hide and seek is a precious historical monument.
“I was told by my mom if any object decisively linking the tomb to the imperial family is unearthed, the Imperial Household Agency may move to control it and prohibit us from entering the tomb. I do not want that to happen." FOOTNOTES
The Imperial Household Agency guards its control of 896 imperial tombs, including the tumuli of 124 emperors.
Based on archaeological discoveries, scholars believe that few of the ancient tombs are authentic.
However, the agency has neither reviewed the original designation nor accepted outside researchers' requests for extensive academic inspections.
In an apparent compromise, the agency since 1979 has allowed representatives of academic societies and journalists to enter one or two tombs for a brief inspection tour each year.
A tomb designated as that of legendary female sovereign Emperor Iitoyo in Nara Prefecture was opened for the tour in December.
It turned out that the tomb underwent a major refurbishment in the late Edo Period.
Experts believe the work was intended to make the tomb look solemn enough for an emperor.
In July last year, 15 academic societies urged the agency to allow them to enter 11 burial mounds, including Emperor Nintoku's tumulus, for inspection. The agency replied it will examine the request on the basis of whether the tombs should be viewed more as sites of imperial rites or cultural treasures.
The agency is expected to announce its decision this year.(IHT/Asahi: January 5,2006)