Emperor_Showa THINK IAFOR 2

July 21, 2016

In the penultimate part of his “Death in the Japanese Tradition” monograph, Professor Stuart D. B. Picken explains why the events preceding Emperor Showa’s passing away, and the rituals thereafter, created wide-ranging debate in Japanese society.

The Emperor’s Illness and Jishuku

On 7 January 1989, Emperor Hirohito passed away after a prolonged struggle against cancer at the age of 87. The events preceding his passing away and the rituals thereafter, created wide-ranging debate in Japanese society, but at the same time marked a watershed of history in the process of Japan’s moving slowly away from her feudal past.

“Foreign Embassies were simply told to cancel all events of a celebratory nature. Weddings and company parties were cancelled, and items with the color red were taken off the market, including red soybeans.”

When it was formally announced that the Emperor was suffering from a terminal illness, it was accompanied by the call for a state of jishuku (self-restraint) by the prime minister. It was government imposed and enforced by the usual threats (withdrawal of favor) employed in Japan to encourage cooperation from the potentially recalcitrant. The overall elaborate and emotional publicity, not to mention reverential soft-toned talk as Emperor Hirohito lay dying might have made anyone skeptical about modern Japanese society wonder if he had, in fact, renounced his kami status in 1945. Foreign Embassies were simply told to cancel all events of a celebratory nature. Weddings and company parties were cancelled, and items with the color red were taken off the market, including red soybeans.

If one considers the economic cost alone of around 200,000 cancelled events to the service industry it is not surprising that shortly after, the Japanese economy, and subsequently the world economy began to slip into recession. Japan’s ruling right wing Liberal Democratic Party, still run by pre-war men, simply railroaded the economy to stagnation in order to try to revive and perpetuate the Emperor mystique. It failed because the younger generation did not see things that way, but they did re-kindle a few old flames of passion. One man committed seppuku and a few made token gestures. Thousands signed the book of condolences. The funeral, however, did not draw the crowds anticipated. The past was past.

The controversies that followed over the alleged war responsibility of the Emperor far overshadowed the public debate about the funeral. In the ensuing months, the mayor of Nagasaki (amongst others) in reviewing the life of Emperor Showa, made a statement in which he suggested that the Emperor did bear some responsibility for the Pacific War and its dreadful sufferings. He was thereafter promptly shot by a right wing gangster fanatic for insulting the divine Emperor. In spite of such extremism, the nation refused to engage in any show of emotion. It was obvious that feelings were mixed. The mood was to end the era quietly, consign it to history and get it behind. The end of the Showa era was quiet, less with a bang than a whimper. (Sources for this section include press reports form the Asahi Shimbun, along with publications from the Jinja Honcho (Voluntary Association of Shinto shrines).

The Question of Religion And State

Emperor Hirohito’s death, however, also raised again the question of religion and state. Who should pay for the funeral and what kind of funeral should take place? The Taiso no Rei was held on 24 February 1989 in Shinjuku Gyoen and the late Emperor was interred at the site of the Imperial Mausoleum in Hachioji. Controversy centered on the erection of a white torii, the gate to a shrine in front of the pavilion where the rites were conducted according to the Shinto tradition. The argument was whether the Imperial Household, the Tennnoke, should use Shinto rituals as their own personal right, or that the national funeral should be free of religious ritual. In fact, the appearance was confusing, and although the torii was removed for the public event, needless to say, controversy ensued.

The point at issue was not simply the constitutional question of payment for a rite, but the deep fear of many that the government was either deliberately trying to stimulate Emperor reverence, or worse, by not being clear in its decisions, to permit its revival by default. But Japan’s international economic status had by that time more or less forced the world’s leaders to attend the event. Wise or not, and time will tell whether the Japanese government handled matters prudently. Showa Emperor Hirohito, to many, Japanese and non-Japanese, symbol of Japan’s militaristic past was laid to rest with the respect of the world community at least in appearance.

He may have been a head of state, and as such, entitled to international recognition. However, in view of the controversies surrounding him and his de facto war leadership, it might have been handled differently. But like the accession rites of Emperor Akihito, it was a chance for the government to show off to the world, the wealth and substance of the new Japan.

The Funeral Rites of Emperor Showa

Controversy aside, the funeral itself followed the pattern of that of Emperor Taisho seventy years before, minus the military uniforms and the gun salutes. That, too, was an issue, since the Imperial Household Ordinances of pre-war days were technically invalidated in 1945. But in the absence of a model, the government fell back on the pre-war rituals as the most readily available model.

“In referring to the death of the Emperor, the normal word shinu (die) is not used in formal statements, nor is the eupehmism, naku-nareru.”

These, in turn, followed patterns going back to the Heian period, when many present ritual forms were determined. These may have included some Buddhist elements in the past, which were purged probably in the Meiji period when Buddhism and Shinto were separated by the government. The procession format, however, remained modeled upon court scrolls from the Heian period. In referring to the death of the Emperor, the normal word shinu (die) is not used in formal statements, nor is the eupehmism, naku-nareru. The term hogyo is used which in traditional texts denotes he death of a kami.

The funeral followed five distinct stages:

1. Renso-tojitsu-hinkyusai-no-gi (Ceremony of Farewell) was a private ceremony of the Imperial Household held on the day of the funeral and entombment.
2. Jisha-hatsuin-no-gi (Ceremony to transport the Imperial hearse from the Imperial Palace to the Funeral Site) was also private. The Reikyu (the Imperial coffin) was brought to the place where the ceremony was to be held.
3. Sojoden-no-gi (Ceremony at the Funeral Hall) is a Shinto ritual involving the new Emperor and several Shinto priests. The Sojoden was a hall erected for the purpose of conducting the ceremonies. By this time, the Reikyu had been placed upon the Sokaren, the one and one half-ton weight palanquin upon which the coffin was placed.
4. Taiso-no-rei (The State Funeral) in which the Emperor was host and the Prime Minister was Chairman of the State Funeral Committee. This was public and involved the visiting heads of state and was considered a secular ritual. At the funeral of Emperor Showa, the Torii was removed between the two rituals to emphasize the distinction between the private rituals of the Imperial Household and the public State Funeral.


(Ceremony of Entombment at the Imperial Mausoleum) In which, the Sokaren is carried to the place of interment by fifty members of the Imperial Household Guard wearing special robes called Sofuku. In the case of both Emperor Taisho and Emperor Showa, this was the Imperial Mausoleum at Hachioji. On the occasion of the funeral of the Emperor Showa, these rituals lasted around five hours. This part was televised only to the stage where the bier disappeared into the compound.

To complete the sequence of events, the Mitamashiro, containing the tamashi (spirit) of the late Emperor was brought finally to the Kashikodokoro of the Imperial Palace where the ancestral Imperial souls reside. This took place one year after the date of the death of the Emperor. It lay in the interim period in the Gonden. Thereafter, the new Emperor visited it to pay reverence and later to announce the date of his formal accession rites.

From Meiji to Showa

The funeral rites of Emperor Meiji were an emotional event and at which the famous General Nogi committed seppuku (ritual suicide) along with his wife on the day of the funeral. His funeral poems already quoted as an example of suicide where a retainer follows his lord into death, both captured and reflected the feelings of those who had grown up with the new Emperor and the Japan of the Meiji period.

The funeral of Emperor Taisho drew over a million people to central Tokyo. The ceremony, the uniforms, and the mystique were preserved and enhanced. In relation to the population, policing and preparations prepared for crowed of two or more million people. It was a wet day, and the police were almost overzealous in keeping people at a distance. At any rate, the cortege of Emperor Showa drew only around 200,000, but it has to be said, in keeping with Japan’s modern profile, it had a TV viewing audience of perhaps more than half the nation. Action and reaction can be equal and opposite.

“Does the passing of Emperor Showa mark the end of the feudal romanticizing of death?”

Does the passing of Emperor Showa mark the end of the feudal romanticizing of death? History can only hope so, but it is doubtful if the self-romanticizing and fanaticizing tendencies of the culture will vanish so easily. It can take other forms, attach itself to other actions or transform itself into other concerns. Numerous examples of these can be found in the period preceding the Emperor Showa’s death. Whether or not the change is complete, history will be the judge. The ability of Japanese culture to romanticize suffering and self-denial should never be underestimated.


This is Part 19 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, The Modern Ritualized Death System, will be published next Thursday on July 28, 2016.

Image | Hirohito in 1902 as a baby (Wikipedia)

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About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Featured, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, Subject Area, World


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