- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

TOKYO The Japanese imperial system, reduced to a symbolic role since the end of World War II, is viewed as the last bastion of tradition by many older Japanese while the younger generation is largely indifferent to it.
Opinion polls taken over the past three decades show a virtually unchanged level of support: More than 80 percent of Japanese back the role of the emperor as the symbol of the nation.
But a desire to preserve the monarchy does not mean people feel affection for its members except on special occasions.
The popularity of the imperial family peaked most recently in 1989, when Emperor Akihito succeeded his late father, Hirohito, and in 1993 when Crown Prince Naruhito married Masako Owada, a promising young diplomat.
"For the over 50s and 60s, the emperor represents a way to protect tradition and Japanese culture. It represents also Japanese identity," said Takeshi Hara, associate professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo and author of a biography of Emperor Taisho, Akihito's grandfather.
"But young people don't care, they don't especially want to keep or eliminate them," he said.
Japanese ordinarily pay little attention to the emperor and his family, whose appearance in the media is confined mainly to coverage of meetings with visiting heads of state and appearances at certain annual rituals.
"Most people are not very interested in them: I cannot say if they are popular or not," said a sociologist from a leading private research institute who asked not to be identified.
"We respect them because they are the longest reigning monarchy in the world."
A sign of the lack of interest in Emperor Akihito and his family is that there are only a dozen or so Japanese Internet sites about them.
One reason is they do not appear to be glamorous or lead interesting lives, such is the control over their activities and the information released about them by the Imperial Household Agency.
Public comment on their private lives is taboo, and the merest perceived slight against their dignity can provoke noisy protests or even violence by members of Japan's small but active ultranationalist groups. But from the outset, the current emperor has made an effort to become closer to his people.
"Akihito and [Empress] Michiko, the first commoner to have entered the imperial family, cultivated an image of a typical middle-class family," said Kenneth Ruoff, a historian specializing in Japan from Portland State University in Oregon.
Small gestures such as photographs of the emperor and empress dancing the fox trot, hugging survivors of the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake, or singing along with a class of kindergarten children this year were landmarks in establishing the emperor as a man of the people, Mr. Ruoff said.
"Before Japan's [World War II] surrender [in August 1945], the monarchy had been the pinnacle of an unquestioned political and social structure.
"After the war, it recast itself as the symbol of the postwar culture of democracy, of the Japanese beliefs, attitudes, values, sentiments about what is democracy," said Mr. Ruoff, author of "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy 1945-1995."
Japan's secretive Imperial Household Agency has played a key role in crafting the image of the nation's imperial family, successfully avoiding the pitfalls of the overexposed British royals.
The agency is known as "the Chrysanthemum Curtain" for its ability to control and obscure from outside view virtually every aspect of the lives of imperial family members.
With such influence, it was able to persuade the royal-mad Japanese media to maintain an almost complete news blackout on Crown Princess Masako's pregnancy until she gave birth to baby Akiko on Dec. 1.
Days after the announcement of the pregnancy in May, the media obligingly refrained from playing up stories about Masako-san following the agency's request to "continue to observe the situation calmly."
A media frenzy was blamed for causing her to suffer a stress-related miscarriage in 1999.
"The Imperial Household Agency successfully managed media control this time and avoided unnecessary disturbance," said Yasuo Ohara, professor of the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo.
"As was the case in Britain, if dignity is undermined, the significance of the royal family could be damaged," Mr. Ohara said.
The Imperial Household Agency, which has a staff of 1,124 and a budget equivalent to $97 million last year, controls distribution of most pictures to the press and vets written questions from reporters for the imperial family's rare press conferences as well as ghost-writing the answers.
Now under Cabinet control, the agency was even more powerful before World War II, although ironically, there was less obsessive control of the tiniest details.
Back then, the agency had been independent from the government with 10,000 officials serving the family. Their jobs included management of the family's assets.
Tightening of the agency's control over the family's every move began during the reign of Emperor Taisho, who was regarded as childish.
"In order to create the authority which was deemed lacking in Emperor Taisho, regulations were established and direct quotes were banned," Mr. Hara said.
The history of the agency can be traced back to the seventh century, in terms of the Christian era used in the West, when reference to the Imperial Household Ministry first appeared in "Taiho Ritsuryo," Japan's first systematic ordinance.
The modern imperial household agency was formed in 1869 after the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Referred to as "the ministry above the clouds" when the emperor was regarded as divine, the agency narrowly escaped being disbanded after World War II when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. military occupation of defeated Japan, decided to keep the imperial family in a symbolic role to promote stability.

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