Men Who Were Called “Gods”
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
THE rulers of most nations are subject to much publicity and their personalities are well known. But the situation is somewhat different with the emperor of Japan. Personal information about him is not widely distributed, and even his personal name is seldom used. To the ordinary person he is “Tenno” or “Ten no Heika,” which means “His Majesty” or “Emperor.” Most Japanese have to think a few seconds to recall what his name is.
But the emperor is very much respected, yes, even revered. This is shown by the fact that during the New Year holiday season, the palace grounds are open to the public on a set day and many thousands come to get a glimpse of the emperor and his family as they appear behind bulletproof glass on a balcony.
However, the 20th century has seen big changes in the people’s perception of the emperor. Many Japanese have even questioned the imperial lineage and the official date of the founding of the nation, February 11, 660 B.C.E. Why should this be, and what are the facts?
Facts are hard to come by. Dr. Michiko Y. Aoki explains why: “For ten years preceding 1945, no sensible studies about the beginning of the Japanese civilization could appear, because serious students of the subject were persecuted, directly and indirectly. However, at the end of World War II the ban on such studies was lifted, and since then no one has been subject to insular prejudices. Nevertheless, long-lived nationalistic sentiment among the Japanese is still so strong as to hinder the objective study of the birth of Japanese civilization.” This was written in 1974.
At present, there is much study going on as Japanese historians try to put together an accurate history of Japan. Archaeologists are busy digging into ruins of old villages and castles. Also, discreet digging into tombs is being allowed. But what about written records?
Kojiki (Records of Ancient Times)
The truth is, there are no really old written records. The first written record of historical importance is called the Kojiki. This is believed to have been completed in the eighth century (712 C.E.). That leaves a gap of more than 1,300 years back to the claimed date of the founding of the Japanese imperial line. How was the record preserved—for all those centuries—before it was written down? It is said the kataribe (professional narrators or memorizers) were used to keep the records intact.
Regarding the Kojiki, one reference says it was “compiled from the memory of an elderly female chamberlain and consists primarily of brief mythology and genealogical lists.” Another written record is the Nihon Shoki, or Nihongi. It is a little more detailed than the Kojiki and was completed some eight years after it. The Nihon Shoki was written in Chinese, not Japanese.
A close examination of these two records shows that they were expressly designed to prove that the emperors descended from the sun-goddess Amaterasu-Omikami. Before 1939 the Nihon Shoki was the textbook used for the study of history in Japan.
How clear were these written records? One example may give some indication. The first emperor of Japan is posthumously called Emperor Jimmu. However, it is not at all certain what his personal name was. You can take your pick from the following: Hatsukunishirasu Sumeramikoto, Kami-yamato Ihare Biko Hohodemi, Kanyamato Iware Hiko no Mikoto, or Prince Ihare!
Do Japanese scholars trust these records to give the precise date for the beginning of the imperial line? Not really. Notice this statement in the book Fifty Years of Light and Dark—The Hirohito Era. The present emperor was introduced in 1926, after the death of his father, Emperor Taisho, with these words: “Hirohito was now ‘God Emperor’ of the almost 2,600-year-old nation, being the 124th in line from the Heavenly-descended ancestor called Jimmu. Although scholars found the early part of the Imperial lineage as well as the exact date of the foundation of the nation extremely dubious, not a single one of the ‘beloved subjects’ was expected to question the ‘established’ godliness of the new Ruler of Japan.”
In 1966 the government officially declared February 11, the traditional date of the founding of the nation, to be a public holiday. This drew mixed reactions from the people, however. A more recent editorial protested: “The day was not established as a historically acceptable foundation day.”
This editorial went on to ask: “Is our apprehension groundless that the governmental support of the National Foundation Day means the restoration of the Kigensetsu or anniversary of the Emperor Jimmu’s accession, a legend which was once fully utilized for military leaders to carry out their aims in the prewar days and during wartime?”
As this editorial indicates, there has been some controversy since Foundation Day was declared a holiday. Persons for and against it have gathered at various places and expressed their views over portable loudspeakers. However, most people are indifferent to the significance of the day. They are just happy to have a day off from work.
Things have certainly changed over the past 40 years! The 1941 issue of Japan Photo Almanac was a special issue commemorating the 2,600th year of the empire. The preface started with these words: “The one hundred million subjects of His Majesty the Emperor have just joined in celebrating the 2,600th year of the Empire’s founding; they have offered felicitations upon the unbroken reign of the Imperial Family, which is without parallel in the world’s history, and have pledged anew their intense loyalty to the Sovereign.”
In those days, no one would question the National Foundation Day, or anything else that pertained to the emperor. The emperor was regarded as a god, and unswerving allegiance was given to him. “To die for the sake of Tenno Heika (His Majesty, the Emperor)” was viewed as an honorable thing by the whole nation. How was such zeal engendered?
It was a natural result of the constitution that was promulgated back in 1889 with the approval of Emperor Meiji, grandfather of the present emperor. Emperor Meiji is viewed as the one who constructed modern Japan. With the help of trusted aides, he caused to be drawn up a constitution modeled on the Prussian form of government, which, among other things, made clear that the emperor was to be revered. His position was said to be ‘sacred and inviolable.’ His word was final, and all subjects were to obey him unquestioningly.
This was reinforced by making the Shinto religion the State religion, purified of all Buddhist elements. It was through this religion that the people were carefully instructed to give wholehearted allegiance to the emperor.
Only a Man
However, when the second world war ended in the defeat of Japan, all of this changed. Here was the first recorded defeat of Japan in all its long history. The Japanese people were perplexed, wondering why their emperor allowed such a thing to happen.
The conquering countries determined it would be better to have the emperor proclaim that he was not a god, and that such a teaching was erroneous, than to put him on trial as a war criminal.
Photos taken at the end of the war show persons prostrating themselves in front of the imperial palace, some weeping, as they express remorse for their failure to help win the war. However, equally expressive are the photos showing the people’s faces on January 1, 1946. On that day the emperor announced to his subjects that the belief that he was a descendant of the gods was a mistake. He was human and mortal like them.
This was a shock to the nation. Many became embittered. Some committed suicide. Still others, to this very day, refuse to believe the announcement and continue to look upon him as a god. But if you ask a person in his 30’s or younger, you will find that he has never regarded the emperor as anything more than a man.
Seeking for Truth
Yes, over a period claimed to be 2,600 years, emperors of Japan were called gods. But, in our 20th century, a man whom many once viewed as a god realistically admitted that he was not.
Despite the shock that many felt at the time, this has had beneficial effects in Japan. Now Japanese scholars, unfettered by an official myth, are able to research their history and try to discover what really happened during the long centuries of Japan’s existence as a nation.
Perhaps more important, recognizing that God is not a mere man has opened the way for many Japanese to search for the true God. In at least 93,000 Japanese homes, individuals and families are studying the Bible together to learn about Him. Happily, in many cases their research is proving successful. More than 66,000 Japanese have come to know Jehovah, the Creator and Sovereign, not only of Japan, but of the whole universe. Serving him brings them far more blessings than serving a human “god” could ever bring.
[Picture on page 19]
Bronze statue of Emperor Jimmu