Make Way for the Emperor of Japan: The United States

From the 1868 Meiji Restoration to the aftermath of World War II, Japan has undergone immense ideological changes to become an economic superpower in the East. Despite Japan’s rapid rise to economic global power and its primacy in technological advancements, the country remains dependent on the United States. Shintaro Ishihara, an author, filmmaker, and former Governor of Tokyo, passionately writes in The Japan that Can Say No that the United States heavily depends on Japan’s computer chips and without them, the US would be totally helpless. This is only one of the ways Japan upholds its international recognition. Even with this relationship and the seemingly strong global presence Japan enjoys, the United States maintains its hegemony, not because of its imperialist nature per se, but because of Japanese traditionalism. The Emperor, especially his image, has been a fundamental part of Japan’s structure that contributes to its persisting values. Japan thus operates on a familial structure that is rooted in glorifying the Emperor. After he was stripped of his divinity in 1946, the United States began adopting an authoritative presence and garnered Japanese followership, thus becoming an Emperor-like figure for Japan.

The Meiji Restoration was a pivotal time in modern Japanese history. It revived the Emperor’s imperial power and divine descent of the goddess Amaterasu, which thus instilled national unity because the people were able to congregate as a “family” under one authoritative “father figure.” This was known as “strategic traditionalism” because of its roots in the past and its strategy in creating a sense of belonging and identity, leading to loyalty and obedience from the people.  Scholar Masao Maruyama, the author of Theory and Psychology of Ultra-Nationalism, describes the “degree of proximity” to convey the power of the Emperor and his relationship to the people. Proximity to the Emperor represented Japanese values and individual social prestige, which is a concept that remains ingrained in the modern Japanese view on power. Maruyama also conveys the ideology of honoring the Emperor by stating: “we must never forget that even in our personal lives we are joined to the Emperor and must be moved by the desire to serve our country.” The Meiji Restoration is the backbone of Japanese ideology but its vision of the Emperor transforms in the 1940s. The core structure remained but the actual value of the Emperor began to shift as the United States began to take control of post-war Japan.

World War II ended in 1945 with the defeat of Japan, even though Japan did not necessarily admit it internally or to the world. The United States began to actively spread its ideals and authority to modify Japan. General MacArthur, who also held the title of SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers), began the transition to “international peace” through rules such as Article 9, forbidding Japan to have an army. As another step toward democratization, the United States relegated the Emperor from a sovereign power to more of a symbolic one. In 1946, Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity in the “Humanity Declaration” in which he labeled himself as the “people’s Emperor” who is connected to the people of Japan through culture and history. Carol Gluck, in The Past in the Present, states: “America wrote the Japanese constitution. Japan, a sovereign nation, is currently operating in its fifth decade under a constitution written by a foreign power.” The governmental structure resembled that of the ‘Western world’ with a Prime Minister and a legislative with a House of Peers (upper house) and a House of Representatives (lower house). SCAP rebuilt post-war Japan by ultimately eliminating the emphasis on the military and disrupting the people’s unquestioning obedience to the emperor. However, the Emperor played more than a governmental role to the Japanese: he was rooted in Japanese traditionalism and ultimately embedded in the culture. The Japanese view of authority and their interaction with it stemmed from the Emperor’s divine power and their proximity to him. Therefore, the removal of the Emperor’s divinity and establishment of a constitutional monarchy ultimately set the stage for the United States to be a dominating power over this democratizing island. The United States and Japan began to engage in a relationship in which the US began to uphold a presence similar to what the Emperor had.

Japanese perceptions of the United States must be contextualized through history and tradition in order to understand the reasoning behind the respect Japan has for the United States. Masao Maruyama, a leading political scientist and theorist, analyzes Japanese nationalism, which he refers to as “ultra-nationalism.” This type of nationalism is unique in that it is heavily rooted in Japanese internal values and traditions. In writing about the imperial system, Maruyama states: “By exercising arbitrary power on those who are below, people manage to transfer in a downward direction the sense of oppression that comes from above, thus preserving the balance of the whole.” The Japanese societal structure had always been achieved through the Emperor being the head of the country and the people striving to live and fight in his name; this type of system mirrors the Hobbesian type of absolutism. In Leviathan, renowned philosopher Thomas Hobbes states that there are “no such things as right and wrong, good and bad, until they are enacted by a decision of the sovereign. The sovereign himself creates the norm” The Japanese way of life was centralized around the Emperor and thus it became normal to have the Emperor create a norm. With this dependency on the Emperor, the Japanese unquestioningly preserved this image since the Meiji Restoration. Their reverence for the Emperor was an essential pillar of their ultra-nationalism and thus this convictional ideology remained unhindered after Emperor Hirohito’s social abdication. Maruyama states: “ultra-nationalism succeeded in spreading a many-layered, through invisible, net over the Japanese people, and even today they have not really freed themselves from its hold.” Therefore, their unquestioning standard of power and authority was transferred to the closest Emperor-like entity: the United States.

Thus the United States filled a vacancy for the Emperor, who no longer held a divine and sovereign power. Being accustomed to an imperial power and living in a culture that honors authority, there was an inevitable shift in replacing the Emperor with another imperial-like figure. In the article “Containing Japan,” James Fallows states that the United States upholds a powerful and imperial appearance in the global world, which influenced Japan’s followership. Fallows also discuses the term gaiatsu, which means “foreign pressure”. This also implies that “whoever is pushing from outside must be unchallengeably strong.” This strength was not only from occupying Japan after the war but also from its reputation of being modern. The United States thus had the “credentials” to modify Japan. The United States also fulfilled Maruyama’s theory of the “degree of proximity.”- as an integral player in the West, it has served as an economic and social model for the rest of the world. As Japan is in the East and experiencing the repercussions from losing the war, Japan was far from the United States both in geographical proximity and also in economic and social stability. The United States epitomized the concept of gaiatsu because this external pressure had an immense influence on the internal values and social networks of Japan.

All of these variables led to the United States standardizing its presence by the Hobbesian type of absolutism: the United States was establishing norms that the Japanese was ultimately accepting. The relationship between Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and US President Reagan in the 1980s is a fitting example of US authority and Japanese submission. Shintaro Ishihara was an author and politician who wrote the controversial piece The Japan that Can Say No. Nakasone passionately writes: “It is beyond my comprehension why, despite this fantastic advantage, Japanese prime ministers go to Washington and accede to every White House wish. That is my greatest complaint about Japanese foreign policy.” He disapproved of how Japan was being treated under the wing of the United States and believed in reestablishing Japan’s image into one of resilience and strength. He was especially critical about Nakasone being a yes-man to Reagan. Nakasone knew Japan’s technology surpassed that of the United States but even with this obvious advantage, Nakasone never said no to the United States. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, known to be a first-rate technology-driven company in Japan, designed a brilliant blueprint for a support fighter code-named FSK (Fighter Support Experimental). The United States was nervous about FSK’s abilities to shoot down American aircraft and thus requested to co-develop and produce the FSK with Japan. This collaboration was not mutual beneficial, as it was purely to reinforce the military force and strength of the United States. Yet, Nakasone was unable to resist Reagan and the commandments of the United States. Although Ishihara is an extreme nationalist that had opinions that were very much one sided, his criticisms held truth in that Japan was an obedient follower to US power.

The US occupation of Japan goes deeper than politics and ultimately pervades culture and tradition as well. The Emperor was an essential element to Japanese politics and culture and was relevant in the lives of individual people. Japan has a family-like structure in which everyone strives to obey and respect the Emperor, who is the head of this national family. According to Maruyama, he keeps the balance and without him, the family structure would be dismantled. However, this form has been deeply embedded in culture since 1868 and has kept its course even when the Emperor renounced his divinity. This paved the way for the United States to adopt the Emperor-like image that was necessary in the cultural seams of Japan. Just as how the Emperor had an unquestionable authority and ruling, the United States was an entity that Japan could not say no to. Prime Minister Nakasone was an adherent to Reagan and denounced Japan’s technological powers to support the United States. Other amendments were written during the occupation, most of which were adopted by Japan. Ultimately, the United States did not necessarily need a strong military force or occupy with unethical standards because the Japanese were more receptive toward the changes. The United States was able to have this much power because of Japanese ultra-nationalism. Although the US was a foreign power, it was able to infiltrate Japanese culture because of gaiatsu and the ideology of Japanese traditionalism of the family and imperial structure. Ultra-nationalism and the concept of the emperor is an indestructible part of Japan because of its roots in the acme of Japanese development and modernization. While the Imperial governance of Japan nominally ended with World War II, in reality, one emperor was substituted for another: the United States.

Works Cited

Fallows, James. “Containing Japan.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 May 1989,

Gluck, Carol. “The Past in the Present .” Postwar Japan as History, by Andrew Gordon, Univ. of California Press, 1993, pp. 65–95.

Maruyama, Masao, and Ivan I. Morris. Thought and Behaviour in Modern Japanese Politics. ACLS, 2010.

Morita, Akio, and Shintaro Ishihara. The Japan That Can Say "No": the New United States-Japan Relations Card. U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., 1989.