Last week the Japanese Imperial Household announced that Emperor Akihito would attend The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London as her guest. (This was the subject of a report in London’s Daily Telegraph)

His Imperial Majesty was, with King Albert II of Belgium, the only other current head of state in attendance at the Queen Coronation in 1953 representing their respective nations.

For this review I thought I would leave the subject of Commonwealth Realm monarchies and look at some of the other success stories of constitutional monarchy in the Asia-Pacific region.

This week’s review is of The Peoples Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy 1945-1995 by Kenneth J Ruoff.

Japan has had a long history of monarchy. It has an unbroken line – meaning the dynasty has never changed – going back well over a millennium. The pre-war Japanese government gave the figure of 2,600 years of the dynasty, whereas 1,600 years would be, based on modern research, a more appropriate time period.


Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito

Ruoff notes the irony that for many leftists in Japan, the Emperors involvement in politics had been an aberration of the militarist era and the pre-war Japanese constitution, so it was right and proper that the Imperial Throne have no involvement in the post-war government of Japan except as a symbol.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko exchanging gifts with the Queen and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace during their 2007 visit to London.

…development of the constitutional monarchy…

Of course for much of that era the Emperors were purely powerless figureheads who carried out religious and social duties while real power rested with the nobility and later the Shogunate, a form of military dictatorship, which however still required the seal of approval from the Imperial Throne to be legitimate.

It wasn’t until the 19th century and the coming of the western powers to Japan that the Imperial Throne was restored to power and used to help unite Japan and forge a modern nation-state.

The then constitution – also known as the Meiji Constitution – of the pre-war modern Japanese era, roughly 1860 to 1945, gave the Emperor sweeping powers and the constitution itself bore more a similarity to Imperial Germany’s and Austro-Hungary’s respective constitutional arrangements.

All this changed with the defeat of militarist Japan, somewhat incorrectly I believe termed by historians as “Imperial Japan”. Japan is still an Imperial State after all reigned over by an Emperor, but its militarist past has long since been rejected.

The post-war constitution declared the Emperor to be the “Symbol of the Nation” and to have extremely limited responsibilities. Ruoff’s book looks at the practical political and cultural ramifications of this seemingly drastic change to modern Japan.

You can see a thread that links pre-war and modern Japan.

Few Prime Ministers in Japans modern history have governed for a sustained time. Terms as head of government like those enjoyed by our Prime Ministers: Menzies, Hawke or Howard are unknown in Japan.

The frequency of the forming and the collapse of governments was the same in pre-war Japan. The focus of the nation’s symbolic governing authority was the Emperor. He remained on the throne, unchanging and so symbolised Japan far better than any politician could.

This is a theme that has remained true of Japan today, even though they have lost a war and received a new constitution in between the pre-war and the post-war eras. Governments come and go, but Japan’s Emperor – the symbol of the nation – reigns throughout.

The issue of Japanese War guilt is one that persists to this day. We in Australia know well the crimes committed by Japanese war criminals on their unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbour, the bombing of Darwin, the atrocities perpetrated on forced labourers of Burma-Thai railway just to give three well known examples. Japan itself, at least to the outside world, has done little to resolve its wrongs in the war.

As Ruoff points out the one person who has done more to say sorry to the world is Emperor Akihito who has been on the throne since the death of his father Hirohito in 1989, the latter whose name is forever linked with militarist JapanAs they stated, surely it was a time honoured tradition in Japan – except for the era of 1860-1945 – that the Emperors were symbols, not heads of government. The Emperor therefore in the new Japan could make no political utterances and show no political partialities whatsoever and this was completely in keeping with Japanese tradition.

The Right and broadly speaking most conservatives in Japan were horrified at the limited role set by the post-war constitution – written by legal experts of the American Army – for the Emperor. Their grievances were further compounded by the fact that the constitution had never been decided upon by the Japanese people themselves.

In the long term however the political Right in Japan came to accept that the modern constitution gave the Emperor a more historically accurate role. Indeed when leftists started supported the idea of the Emperor acting as a symbol and making apologies to other nations for Japan’s war guilt, it was the Right who said that was not possible, as the Emperor was only a symbol and that apologies were a political matter and as such only the government could offer them, not the Emperor!

As Ruoff points out, what characterises the modern Japanese Monarchy with its great symbolic value and non-political raison-d’être is that it can be all things to all Japanese…depending on their point of view.

Emperor Hirohito was Emperor for much of the time period this book covers and his reaction to his new role and the reaction of the Governments and Oppositions of the day to their Sovereigns new role is explored in this work.

What I got from this book was a feeling that the Americans who drafted this constitution were wrong to leave the Emperor without any reserve powers, however limited. There was no way the Emperor could encourage his Ministers or help break a political deadlock. The primacy of politics might argue for the need for powerless head of state, but the primacy of good government I believe however argues the opposite.

…Emperor Akihito…

In more recent times the Emperor Akihito has however stared down critics of the Imperial System – both the hard left who wanted to get rid of his throne and the far right who used the Throne as part of their nationalist agenda – to make symbolic gestures by personally apologising to Japan’s neighbours, most notably China and South Korea, who bore the brunt of Japanese militarism, and offering his deep regret about Japan’s past actions.

Long before William and Kate started a sensation with their “royal-marries-commoner” love story, Akihito made huge waves in Japanese society by marrying a commoner, the first Japanese Prince to do so in history. It has proven to be a true love story and one that symbolised modern Japan with its rising and prosperous middle class and democratic tendencies.

The Empress Michiko as Crown Princess and even more so now as Empress Consort, has been very much a hands-on Royal whose common touch endeared her to the Japanese people, and this long before the world became enraptured by Princess Diana and her style.

People’s Emperor! Akihito and Empress Michiko connecting with their subjects

(insert photo of the Imperial Couple with their subjects)

Above: People’s Emperor! Akihito and Empress Michiko connecting with their subjects.

Emperor Hirohito and his Empress never kneeled on the same level as their subjects. This has become however a practice during the current reign.

Ruoff highlights this an example of the way in which the current Emperor has redefined the Imperial Throne. Indeed the modern monarchy of Akihito’s reign has quite rightly been regarded as the “monarchy of the masses”, although that title was not given as a compliment at the time it was first used.

Much is made in this book of the Japanese monarchy’s emulating the Royal Family of Great Britain and the Commonwealth Realms. In seeking to modernise the monarchy and connecting with the populace, the Japanese establishment sought to replicate the style and success of the House of Windsor, showing that monarchical tradition and democratic governance compliment each other perfectly.

…leadership beyond politics…

Readers will no doubt note that Kenneth Ruoff’s work, published in 2003, commented on what seemed to be the lack of non-partisanship by the Queen during the so-called Sunday Times controversy when according the to the said tabloid the Queen had voiced criticism of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As we know from the subsequent admissions of the royal staffer in question, Michael Shea, it was his embellishment of his own views as a staffer of the Royal Household that led to the story in the first place.

Indeed writers such as Andrew Marr, Robert Hardman and the American journalist Sally Bedell Smith have in their recent works shown that Elizabeth II made no such comments about her British Government and that Shea’s actions were a result of his own political leanings.

Ruoff’s work also raises an interesting point, regarding the term “Head of State”. There was some uncertainty in the post-war constitution – and the Japanese body-politic – as to whether or not the Emperor was the head of state. As this American academic points out the term is a mere diplomatic nicety, not a defined constitutional position.

Ruoffs observations on the diplomatic term very much validate Sir David Smith’s conclusions in his work Head of State about the Australian Constitution.


In many ways the Japanese Monarchy with its purely symbolic and non-political role, is closer to the reality of the Australia or Canadian Monarchy where the Sovereign is a symbol, as opposed to the British Monarchy where the Sovereign has a more hands on role in Government, albeit one restricted by history and tradition.

Tradition and popular consent have long been the hallmarks of constitutional monarchy. Its practical working has made it an ideal model of responsible and stable governance. Japan, like our own country, is the beneficiary of this mode of government.

With his intimate and thoroughly researched knowledge of Japan, Kenneth Ruoff’s work highlights the way in which constitutional monarchy can evolve and in doing so represent’s the best that a nation would want in its constitutional governance.

The Peoples Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy 1945-1995 by Kenneth J. Ruoff is available from the Book Depository for $28.37, which includes free delivery. All prices are at the time of writing this review.

By following the above links and purchasing the book, your buy will help benefit ACM directly, and as with all orders from the Book Depository postage is free.

Subsequent chapter updates or “Epilogues” to this work can be downloaded from his university webpage.