November 03, 2011

The symbolic role


Writing about the daily life of the pre-Meiji emperors in the late Edo period, Donald Keene observes that

Even if they resented the supremacy of the shogunate and recalled nostalgically the distant past when the emperor reigned supreme, most emperors and members of the aristocracy did not chafe under the regulations to which they were subjected. The world they lived in was tiny, but they seemed unaware of its limitations, and matters of the most minute concern could occupy their minds for decades.

Emperor Go-Daigo and his successors in the Southern Court did resent it and rebelled. Their resistance lasted a mere half-century before it was quashed by the Ashikaga shogunate. The emperor would not reign supreme in Japan for another 500 years, and even then, not really.

The following description of Zaphod Beeblebrox and the President of the Galaxy springs to mind in this regard: "A role that involves no power whatsoever, and merely requires the incumbent to attract attention so no one wonders who's really in charge."

Japan's post-war constitution, which formally stripped the emperor of any actual political or military authority, consequently made the "soft power" of his constitutionally-defined "symbolic role" more dynamic and influential than almost all of his predecessors.

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