Emperor Akihito was the first Japanese emperor to be enthroned as a "symbol". Emperor Hirohito became a symbol with the conclusion of World War II in 1945 and the enactment of the new Constitution of Japan on May 3, 1947, but Emperor Akihito was the first emperor to assume the throne on the premise of being a symbol.
Article 1 of Japan's Constitution stipulates that "[t]he Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power."
I have long thought there is no other clause so important yet so irresponsible. Despite the repeated reference to "symbol" - "the symbol of the State and (the symbol) of the unity of the People" - nowhere in the Constitution is there any mention whatsoever of what constitutes a symbol and how the emperor should serve as a symbol. Could it not be said that the attitude of we the Japanese people since the establishment of the emperor as a symbol is the reason it has been left entirely up to the emperor to determine the meaning and manifestation of "symbol" on his own?
For thirty years after assuming the throne, Emperor Akihito has confronted head-on the difficult questions of what being a symbol means and how one becomes a symbol, questions for which no one else has answers, and the search for these answers and the path down which Emperor Akihito proceeded in this search took the form of the Heisei Era.
I am a researcher specializing in microbiology, but since university I have also been a poet who has written poems in Japan's oldest form of poetry known as tanka, consisting of five lines of 5,7,5,7 and 7 syllables for a total of 31 syllables. For nearly half of the years of the Heisei Era, beginning in the 15th year of Heisei (2003), I served as the selector of poems for the Utakaihajime (annual New Year's poetry reading) at the Imperial Court, and during that time I was privy to the poems written by both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
The emperor as a symbol is prohibited from making political statements, so what have been his views on the Japanese people and Japanese society and what did he want to convey to the nation? I have always believed that the poems written by the emperor and empress clearly convey their messages on these matters. That conviction prompted me to continue a weekly series in Kyodo News' member newspapers nationwide that for more than a year looked back over the Heisei Era through the tanka written by the imperial couple. The 63 serial articles have just recently been compiled as a book - "Poems of a Symbol" - and published by Bungeishunju Ltd.
In these serial articles I divided the imperial couple's poems into four themes - "visits to disaster-hit areas to offer encouragement to disaster victims", "journeys to battle sites inside and outside Japan to comfort the souls of the war dead", "the creation of a new household image for the Imperial family", and "the most frequently read somon (romantic exchanges of poems) between emperors and empresses through history" - and appreciated and discussed these in chronological order. Here I would like to discuss the "journeys to battle sites inside and outside Japan to comfort the souls of the war dead".
While I should rightly refer to the imperial couple as the retired emperor and empress, here I will, in the absence of any particular note to the contrary, use the contemporary appellations of emperor and empress as I examine the imperial couple's poems and consider the feelings and messages they wished to convey in their respective positions in order to emphasize the presentness of the times at which the poems were written.
There were four anniversary days that Emperor Akihito insisted must be remembered. The first three were August 6 and August 9, the days on which atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, and August 15, the day commemorating the end of World War II. These are all days that no one in Japan will ever forget, but another day the emperor deemed similarly important was June 23, the day on which the fighting on Okinawa, in which so many civilians were caught up, came to an end in the closing days of World War II. No matter where they were on these four days, the imperial couple never failed to offer silent prayers.
One memorable episode took place in June 1994, when the couple visited the United States for the first time as emperor and empress. A formal dinner to be hosted by the mayor of San Francisco and his wife happened to fall on the day commemorating all those who died in the Battle of Okinawa. Upon realizing that the dinner would overlap with the time of the memorial services in Japan, the emperor asked that the dinner be rescheduled for later, and the emperor and empress offered silent prayers in their hotel room at the appointed time. The mayor of San Francisco was very gracious in agreeing to this change of schedule, but the emperor's firm resolve not to let anything interfere with the commemoration of this anniversary should most certainly be borne in mind.
The 50th anniversary of the end of World War II came in 1995, a year in which the imperial couple made journeys to comfort the spirits of the war dead at four locations where the devastation of war had been most pronounced. They first visited Nagasaki on July 26 and then Hiroshima on the following day. On August 2 they visited Okinawa and on August 3 the Tokyo Memorial Hall in Tokyo's Sumida Ward, which suffered tremendous damage during the Great Tokyo Air Raids. Later, on August 15, they attended a national memorial service for the war dead at the Nippon Budokan.
Serried row on row,
Stone monuments carved over
Fully with the names
Of all who were lost in the
Battle of Okinawa.
All of those people
Suffering still the evils
Of the atom bomb
Oh, what must have been the pain
Of their days down fifty years!
Fifty years from bombing,
Now on the earth of Hiroshima,
Dropping so gently,
A rain shedding where it falls
Only the fragrance of rain
These are all poems that were read during this series of journeys to comfort the spirits of the war dead. The first poem was read when the emperor visited the Cornerstone of Peace in Okinawa. It has become customary for the emperor, whenever in Okinawa, to visit the Cornerstone of Peace, on which are inscribed the names of people killed in the Battle of Okinawa, but the imperial couple's feelings for Okinawa ran deep, and they visited Okinawa 11 times before the emperor's abdication.
As is well known, the emperor's first visit to Okinawa in 1975 while still crown prince saw two activists emerge from a cave in which they had been hiding and throw fire bombs immediately after the emperor and empress had deeply bowed their heads before the Tower of Lilies and laid down a wreath of flowers. With so many lives, both military and civilian, having been sacrificed in the war and Okinawa's reversion to mainland Japan delayed because of prolonged post-war occupation by the US military, people's feelings toward the imperial family were very mixed.
Despite this incident, the imperial couple had deep feelings for Okinawa, and with each visit they were welcomed with greater warmth by the people of Okinawa until eventually these visits were being eagerly anticipated. Okinawa can well be said to have occupied a special place among the imperial couple's journeys to comfort the spirits of the war dead. The emperor even wrote numerous ryuka (a traditional Okinawan form of poetry), a task reportedly difficult even for native Okinawans, to express his special feelings toward Okinawa, and reading them gives one a sense of his mourning for the war dead.
The third poem, written by the empress, is a highly-crystallized work. The expression "A rain shedding where it falls, only the fragrance of rain" in the latter part reflects the refined sense of the poem and, not simply evoking the smell of rain, it naturally harkens back to the "black rain" that had fallen on Hiroshima after the atomic bombing fifty years earlier. The poem's structure illuminates the peace we enjoy today by recalling the rain that poured down on the streets of Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bomb was dropped.
During his reign, the emperor did not miss a single memorial service commemorating the end of World War II, and he made repeated journeys throughout the Heisei Era to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and elsewhere to comfort the spirits of the war dead and composed many poems on the victims of the war.
These journeys to comfort the spirits of the war dead were not limited to Japan. Countless soldiers and civilians lost their lives in China and Manchuria as well as in the southern theater of Indochina and the islands of the South Pacific during the war, and it was the imperial couple's firm determination to comfort the souls of these war dead that led to a series of overseas visits.
Their first such visit was to Iwo Jima in 1994, the year before the 50th anniversary of the war's end. In 2005, they went to Saipan to mark the 60th anniversary of the war's end, and in 2015 they made a journey to Peleliu Island to comfort the souls of the war dead on the 70th anniversary of the war's end.
On this isle that once
Was burned bare by battle-fires,
All these fifty years
Ownerless, the castor plants
Have gone on growing lushly
Water now fills, so calmly,
The stone basin to the brim
At this memorial site,
How you, who died in the war,
Must have thirsted for water then.
An old man who had fought there,
Just as it had been,
Lying down on the sea-shore
Told us the whole sad story.
At the end of this island
Those women with determination
Kicked the cliff and jumped
Ah, sad to think of the power
Of their soft foot-soles.
In fierce battles there
Countless persons lost their lives
I now see the isle
Across and beyond the sea
Lying so green and serene.
Could they be, I wonder,
The souls of the departed
Here in Palau
I watch the silver white terns
Gliding low over the sea.
I have paired up poems composed when the imperial couple visited Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Peleliu Island. Iwo Jima is often referred to as a land of suicidal attacks, and in 1945 the ground had been bombed beyond recognition. Soldiers nevertheless managed to hole up in underground bunkers, only for many of them to be killed in battle, perhaps during suicidal attacks, after more than a month of incredibly intense fighting. Temperatures reached 47-48℃ in the underground bunkers carved out on this volcanic island, and the second poem by the empress contemplates the soldiers who died in want of water. The first poem by the emperor ponders the transience of human action in the face of nature as he witnesses the vitality of the castor oil plants that have flourished for more than half a century since these soldiers died.
There is unfortunately not adequate space here to offer my appreciation of each and every poem, but I would like to add a bit of commentary about the fourth poem by the empress. While in Saipan, the imperial couple stood side by side on the edge of Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff and deeply bowed their heads. While the battle sites all had a bitter tinge, these sites in particular were where soldiers and civilians alike had thrown themselves over the edge yelling "Long live the Emperor!" The bitterness that the emperor unquestionably felt when thinking on these last words, even though the emperor being referenced was not himself but his father, defies imagination. The image of the emperor and empress bowing their heads deeply no doubt gave many Japanese a shock.
I would like to quote something I wrote in "Poems of a Symbol" about the empress' poem:
At a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of his coronation, the emperor in 2019 said the following:
The emperor's own thoughts on how to fulfill his duties as a symbol can be clearly discerned in this quotation, and what is important for the emperor is the strong commitment to serving as a symbol, focusing not on "being" emperor but on what to "do" as emperor. His wish to abdicate after growing elderly stems from a sense of crisis about being unable to serve as a symbol if no longer able to do what was needed.
Numerous people have witnessed the transformation of the visits to disaster-hit areas and the journeys to comfort the spirits of the war dead into the most prominent aspect of the emperor's service as a symbol. However, I believe that these two major tasks may have become identical in the emperor's own mind when considering the role of a symbol.
During visits to disaster-hit areas, the significance lay in the fact that the emperor drew close to the people caught up in disasters, shared their suffering and gave them encouragement. Characteristic of the imperial couple's condolence visits was that they were never content with one visit to the sites of the natural disasters that occurred in particularly large number during the Heisei Era. They would unfailingly visit disaster-hit areas a second and even a third time and lift the people's spirits.
Besides drawing closer to disaster victims, the emperor and empress conveyed a clear-cut message that the victims would never be forgotten. Media attention on the suffering of disaster victims tends to fade quickly with the passage of time. Not being forgotten by the emperor naturally gave the victims the sense they were not being forgotten by the rest of the nation, providing considerable encouragement to disaster victims setting out on the road to recovery.
My contention and conclusion is that offering support and never forgetting were two significant aspects inherent in the journeys to comfort the spirits of the war dead as well.
The emperor has repeatedly mentioned that he will never forget those who fell victim to the war:
These words were spoken by the emperor in 2018 at a press conference on his birthday, and it is the emperor's fervent insistence that we pass the memories of the war down to subsequent generations so the dead are not forgotten.
At the same time, the following words, spoken after the end of a journey to comfort the spirits of the war dead on the 50th anniversary of the war's end, drew my attention:
While it hardly need be said that these journeys to comfort the spirits of the war dead were undertaken to mourn those who had fallen victim to the war and to pray for their souls, the emperor's words speak of one more matter of importance; due attention should be paid not only to "praying for the repose of the souls" but also to the expression "never forgetting the sorrows of their deceased families".
There are families whose fathers and brothers were sent to fight as soldiers during the war, as well as people whose immediate families or other relatives died as civilians caught up in war in a foreign land. For those with such sad memories, the war rages on, no matter how much time passes.
The emperor's words during his journeys to comfort the war dead teach us that the essence of being a symbol lies in offering support and not forgetting: offering support to those burdened with these sad memories and never letting them pass from the nation's memory.
As I mentioned earlier, the true nature of a symbol as embodied in the emperor and empress can be congealed into these two ideas of "offering support" and "never forgetting". The appearance of these two aspects synchronously in visits to disaster-hit areas and diachronically in the journeys to comfort the war dead can be taken as the meaning of "symbol" in the Heisei Era.