Emperor Akihito’s unprecedented video address in August 2016, when he hinted at his wish to abdicate due to the strain of his official role at his advanced age, prompted an avalanche of discussion about Japan’s monarchy: the rumoured troubles between the family and the Imperial Household Agency; the efforts of the current emperor to meet ordinary people and atone for the war; the succession crisis and lack of a male heir after the Crown Prince until the birth of Hisahito in 2006.
The flow of news has continued with the almost begrudging legislation revising the Imperial Household Law to allow Akihito to abdicate as a one-off, which was passed by an upper house committee earlier this month, ahead of an actual abdication probably in late 2018. The recent announcement that Princess Mako plans to get formally engaged and thus, being a women, leave the Imperial Family, also re-ignited the debate about primogeniture in the emperor system.
But the media coverage, both domestic and foreign, has seemed completely to ignore the small but long-standing anti-emperor movement in Japan, which was reanimated by Akihito’s announcement last summer.
Far-left Marxist groups like Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction, formally known as the Revolutionary Communist League – National Committee) are opposed to the emperor system and have voiced this prolifically in publications. The famously republican Japanese Communist Party is now a thoroughly mainstream party and continues with attempts to dilute the impression its name conveys to many. This includes its stance towards the emperor and the party has now compromised on this issue, effectively recognising the monarchy’s role in Japan.
There are also smaller groups dedicated solely to protesting the emperor system, most notably Hantenren (Han-Tennōsei Undō Renraku Kai, or Anti-Emperor Activities Network). These are made up of leftists and various activists, but generally of a different ilk to the New Left groups like Chūkaku-ha. Founded in 1984, Hantenren organises an annual protest on August 15th, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, which is always vehemently opposed by ultra-nationalists. The mayhem of the yearly march was documented by the video artist Meirō Koizumi in his film Today My Empire Sings, which was exhibited in Harajuku in May.
The anti-emperor ideology of groups like Hantenren is not like the republicanism of other countries, such as the UK. It is much more emotional and based on the complex legacy of the wartime period and Japanese imperialism in Asia, which was done in the name of Emperor Hirohito, who was then revered as a living god. In this respect, the anti-emperor movement is divorced from the actual circumstances surrounding Akihito, who has actually dedicated himself to honouring everyday people and traveling around Asia showing contrition for the war. Hantenren’s activism, then, arguably had more poignancy in the Shōwa era, when Hirohito was still on the Chrysanthemum Throne. Due to the time that has elapsed and Akihito’s very human approach, the vast majority of Japanese do not associate the current emperor or emperor system with wartime imperialism.
That being said, the newly emboldened movement is not obsessed with the person of the emperor per se, and protests other related issues: the use of taxes to pay for the Imperial Family; the use of honorific language to address members of the Imperial Family; the enthronement rituals, which will likely see again in 2019, that still use old customs based on when the emperor was regarded as divine; and the sexism of the system, which does not allow women to succeed to the throne (Hisahito has two much older sisters and the Crown Prince has a daughter).
The new wave of anti-emperor protests are expected to peak in 2019, when the Crown Prince will most likely be installed as the new sovereign (and the era will change from Heisei to something new). As such, activists are closely watched by Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Public Security Bureau, though the heavy police presence at rallies and marches is as much to protect the participants from ultra-nationalist counter-protests.
This was apparent at last November’s march in Kichijōji, which resulted in damage to the demonstrators’ vehicle and other property when rightists obstructed and attacked the march in full view of the public and police, though no one was physically harmed. The MPD is now pursuing prosecutions of 11 members of seven far-right groups, it was announced on May 31st. The men, aged in their twenties to fifties, have admitted the charge of destruction of property.
The Kichijōji rally was organised by a group calling itself, in English, the Executive Committee of Demonstration for No More Emperor System [sic], which has been identified by the media as Hantenren in another guise, though this is not officially acknowledged. The same protestors organised a second rally on June 3rd, once again in the same park in Kichijōji and once again followed by a march around the station area.
Not surprisingly, many police officers were positioned inside the train station as well as along the streets and in the park. This time round the rally location was totally blocked off to members of the public and officers refused to let me through until I said I was a participant, which was not strictly true (I am not personally opposed to the emperor system, though I believe it needs reform). This forced participants and observers alike to declare themselves to the guards and then pass through ranks of dozens of officers in riot gear, who called out to each other: “Participant coming through!”. This was an unnerving experience that made it hard for a first-time participant to join in.
There were more people at the eclectic rally than before, around 220 according to the activists’ count. Attendees skewered older but there were also a fair few people under 40, plus at least one university student (who made a speech) and a family with a young child. I appeared to be the only non-Japanese and certainly the sole white foreigner.
The tension was palpable in the increased presence of riot police officers and public security police: something like at least three times the number of protestors. Unlike the November event, though, no ultra-nationalists were inside or around the park. Due to the violence last time, they were kept far away, waiting along the route. When the march started and the protest left the park, they became more visible. However, no doubt due to the prosecutions and police warnings, there were fewer than before. There were, inevitably, scuffles around the main streets, though the police managed to prevent the nationalists from making physical contact with the marchers or their vehicle. The uyoku counter-protestors were mostly middle-aged men but there were some exceptions, including women.
One aspect about the ultra-nationalists that is easy to overlook amidst the chaos is the performative nature of their sound and fury: they make a big show of rushing at the marchers and being held back by police — only to break character and apologise to the officers for pulling on their uniform, crack a chuckle and small, and then immediately dash again at the marchers. They are usually careful not even to touch, let alone assault, their “enemies”. It is more like WWF Superstars than genuine thuggery, though nonetheless still frightening to be caught up in the melee.
The rally itself was relatively tame and ordered, but when the march started, with its attendant legions of riot police and scattering of boisterous right-wing radicals, the event felt like an invasion of the well-to-do Kichijōji area, which is typically a place for weekend dates and family outings.
The protestors’ rhetoric was not fanatical, largely focused on their opposition to the emperor system, the police oppression and the rightists. Their slogans included “We don’t need the emperor system”, “The emperor system is a symbol of discrimination” and the catchy “Abolition, not abdication”. The marchers also protested the new abdication law and criticised the emperor system as traditionally discriminatory against the Buraku caste, women and Okinawans. They also asserted their opposition to the conspiracy bill, which may have a direct impact on these kinds of movements in the near future.
But to the casual observer everything sounded like a litany of negatives, all “hantai this, hantai that”. More importantly, dissent in almost any form is so alien to Kichijōji, it surely renders the protest ineffective — but perhaps this is the point of any protest movement: to introduce new ideas into the calm and easy everyday mix. As Francis Fox Piven argued, the efficacy of social movements led by those with few resources hinge on their ability to cause disruption.
Compounded by the unlikely bourgeois location, the whole carnival of the protest cannot help but come across as extremism due to how the rally entails shutting down the entire station area on a busy Saturday for almost an hour. Shoppers and pedestrians were reduced to unwitting spectators, watching in disbelief or curiosity as the marchers plodded by surrounded by hundreds of police officers and handfuls of angry rightists. It added up to a cacophony: the screeches of the uyoku; the protestors’ slogans through the microphones; and the police announcements, also through speakers. No one could move. People watching asked each other what the demonstration was about, since no one could hear anything. In the end, it was all, for locals, simply meiwaku (a nuisance).
Vice News sent someone with a camera and there was at least one or two other media outlets with reporters on the scene. The protest generated negative coverage in the conservative-leaning Sankei Shimbun, which named the organisers as Hantenren and quoted a couple of bystanders. “I think there should be freedom of speech,” said a 48-year-old woman from Tokyo, “but I cannot agree with what they are protesting.” “They held a big protest the other day,” carped a 41-year-old local man with his family, “and it caused an uproar in the area. Honestly, I want them to stop doing this in Kichijōji.”
While they will always be a fringe movement, more anti-emperor protests can be expected over the next two years as the next emperor is enthroned. They cannot be banned outright but the police may restrict marches and rallies in terms of where and when they can be happen. And we can also expect the movement to be largely ignored by the media, since the Chrysanthemum taboo still holds sway.