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Continued from Japan: Land of the rising daughter - (London) Times 1/2
On the morning of November 29, 2003, a black SUV owned by the Japanese embassy in Iraq was racing up the dusty road that runs from Samarra to the town of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s place of birth. At the wheel was Suleiman Zuma, 54, who had been employed by the embassy since the early 1980s. One of his passengers was a diplomat, Masamori Inoue, 30, an Arabic speaker, married with a son, aged two. The other was Katsuhiko Oku, 45, Japan’s representative on the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. They were travelling to a meeting on reconstruction, for which Japan would give generously.
Trusted with Japan’s most sensitive dealings with the British and Americans in Iraq, Oku was a leading player behind Japanese foreign policy. He had (of course) been to Oxford. He played rugby and was a member of the Garrick Club. Married with three children, he was admired by his colleagues as the epitome of a new, confident breed of internationalist Japanese diplomats. According to three authoritative sources in Tokyo, he became a close friend of Masako while she was in the foreign ministry, and later supported her vision as crown princess. There were even murmurings in Japanese high society of a romance between the two, before they met their future spouses. On that November morning, however, the confident Oku had either made a mistake – or had been betrayed. Two Iraqi peasants described what happened next: four or five white cars overtook the Japanese vehicle and boxed it in. Then a white Toyota pick-up drew up alongside it. One gunman levelled an automatic rifle and opened fire. The SUV slowed down, swayed, veered off the road, then came to a halt 60 yards into a field. All three occupants died. Oku had taken a lethal shot in the head and 10 bullets entered his left side and arm.
The news reached Tokyo on a quiet Sunday morning. It was a terrible blow to Japan’s first overseas military venture in more than half a century. The diplomats’ coffins came back to Tokyo, where few could stay stoical at the sight of Oku’s teenage son standing to attention in his school uniform, tears streaming down his cheeks, as a guard of honour bore his father past.
The funerals, on December 6, 2003, were attended by Japan’s prime minister. However, protocol bars members of the imperial family from attending funerals apart from those of its members, so Masako remained inside the Tobu palace compound a mile or two away. The allied investigation concluded that the murders were the result of a terrorist conspiracy. If so, it had unintended consequences. Later that month, Masako fell into a deep depression. It was as if, after a decade of frustration and conflict, something had broken. One by one, her engagements were cancelled. She would vanish from sight for almost two years. Only little Princess Aiko could console her. Masako’s psychological collapse left a vacuum. In her absence, there continued a bland constitutional debate on the succession. Behind its screen, however, are people with family connections to some of the darkest periods in Japanese history.
The Japanese monarchy purports to be immutable, but in fact has rebranded itself at least four times: in 1868, 1923-6, 1945 and on the death of Hirohito in 1989. Each time there was momentous significance for Japan and the world.
“The ‘mainstream’ faction decided on the death of the Showa emperor [Hirohito] that they would sell a new image of the emperor’s role,” said Osamu Watanabe, a historian at Hitotsubashi University. “They saw an opportunity to regain Japan’s influence throughout Asia, selling the image of a peaceful emperor reigning over a capitalist society. First, they created the myth that [Hirohito] hated war. Then they sent out the new emperor to apologise to the Asian countries for his father’s war.” Watanabe said rightwingers loathed Emperor Akihito’s diplomacy of contrition, but were more appalled at what could come next. “To their dismay, the crown prince and crown princess look even more liberal than the present emperor,” he said. “Masako is seen as the diplomacy-loving crown princess, the symbol of all this sentimental movement. She’s regarded as a protégée of the foreign ministry.”
To Watanabe, the issues go right to the core of Japan’s identity. “You may have a superficial idea that this is a conservative-liberal conflict,” he said, “but if you dig deeper you’ll see it’s really about Japan’s place in the world.” It was, therefore, no surprise to insiders when the first senior member of the Imperial family broke silence on the succession issue. Prince Tomohito Mikasa, 60, is a nephew of Hirohito. He holds plain views on the man who led Japan to war in the 1930s, unmodified by his studies from 1968 to 1970 at, yes, Magdalen College, Oxford. “Nobody could have been fairer and more unselfish,” he said. “Nobody can surpass him in terms of personality and virtue.”
The prince’s opinions are to be found in transcripts of conversations over the years with a group of sympathetic journalists, issued in a collection called Koshitsu to Nihonjin. They have never previously been translated in the West. Once decoded from indirect imperial language, their agenda is clear. He dismisses Masako’s vision of royal diplomacy, saying the “correct form” should be to leave it first to the government, then to the private sector. The prince does not like the phrase “emperor system”; he prefers the term “heavenly lord”. “The heavenly lord has always been at the fixed point to prevent the nation’s collapse and preserve its existence,” he said. As for Masako’s difficulties inside the palace, Prince Tomohito scathingly said, “The palace isn’t as strange as the general public think.” Naturally, he was opposed to a woman ascending the throne. He offered a traditional solution to the lack of male children: Japanese emperors, he said, should once again take concubines to breed boys. These opinions outraged Japanese women and put the prince at odds with the Japanese government’s own Advisory Council, which recommended that women should succeed and an absolute right of succession should fall on the first-born child.
Iwao Sumiko, a prominent academic and one of the council’s two female members, wrote: “What made it possible to maintain this male-line succession was the previous system of allowing emperors to take concubines. This is not something that can be considered today.”
Prince Tomohito’s uncensored opinions amount to a manifesto in favour of the old Shinto state monarchy, abandoned when Hirohito renounced his divinity after Japan’s defeat. But there is more than nostalgia behind it. The presentable face of the revisionists is a man of 30 who sports trendy green-framed spectacles and has the perfect manners of high birth. He is Takeda Tsuneyasu, a great-great-grandson of the Meiji emperor, Mutsuhito, descended, as it happens, through one of his concubines.
Takeda has written a book – judiciously ignored by most of the Japanese media – proposing that Japan should restore the privileges of 11 noble families, including his own, who were removed from the Imperial House by American reforms to “democratise” the monarchy in 1947. “We can provide spare blood,” he says. “We should be called back into service.” Secondly, Takeda argues that the old tradition of adopting aristocratic boys into the family could be revived. Thirdly, he says: “Emperors should be allowed to abdicate. It would be painful to see too old an emperor struggling to fulfil his duties.” Takeda artfully suggests that all of this would “relieve the pressure” on Masako.
The constructive suggestions of this earnest young man and the reactionary manifesto enunciated by Prince Tomohito appear totally unconnected – until you look closely. Prince Tomohito’s father is Prince Mikasa – the fourth and youngest brother of Hirohito – who is still alive but lives in seclusion at the age of 91. Mikasa figured in some of the murkiest episodes of his brother’s reign. In November 1941 Hirohito sent him to Saigon as his personal representative for the southern staff planning the attack on British Malaya, where he served with Takeda’s grandfather Prince Takeda Tsuneyoshi. “I revered my late grandfather and lived with him as a boy,” said Takeda. “One day he noticed that while I was doing my homework I had scribbled the characters for my name in a shoddy way. He seized the paper, he shredded it into pieces and said, ‘Your name is a very important asset, for it was bestowed by Emperor Meiji.’ So I wrote it properly from then on.”
Such loyalty does not wither. Perhaps that is why some of the more progressive members of the government’s Advisory Council suggested the monarchy should be allowed to die out naturally later this century. For China and Korea – the victims of imperial expansion – its demise would be welcome. Would most Japanese care?
Here is a clue. In a national park set in the far-flung suburbs of western Tokyo, the Showa emperor, Hirohito, who led the worst of Japan’s 50-year rampage across Asia, lies entombed in a forest glade. Nearby rests his father, Taisho, who died deranged, and their two empresses. If the dynasty ends, this is where it will come to rest.
Few visitors pay their respects these days, said a local taxi driver, who lamented the area’s decline. “It has been ruined by cheap textile competition from China.” On a weekday morning, only a party of junior-school children crunched up the gravel avenues, to look, beyond the gates adorned with a gold chrysanthemum, at Hirohito’s tomb.
As the children crowded around their teacher, a violent thunderstorm broke, sending them shrieking and scattering amid gales of laughter back down the sacred way to shelter.