Sovereignty ceremony plan under fire over emperor's presence

April 19, 2013


A government plan to hold a ceremony this month to mark the day Japan recovered its sovereignty under the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952 has triggered a firestorm because Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will attend the event.

The Cabinet led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided the ceremony will be held April 28, the 61st anniversary of the day on which the peace treaty that restored Japan's sovereignty went into effect.

However, protests have arisen in Okinawa, site of a bloody land battle in 1945 and lingering resentment over the huge U.S. military presence there, because many inhabitants consider the date to be a "day of humiliation" when their prefecture was forsaken by the Japanese government. The United States did not return Okinawa to Japanese control until 1972, a full 20 years after the peace treaty went into effect.

Because of that division in public opinion, some are concerned about involving the emperor in such a controversial event. Others are saying the Abe administration is simply trying to use the emperor for its own political ends.

When the Abe Cabinet approved the ceremony plan on March 12, it released a statement that said the emperor and empress would attend along with representatives of various sectors of Japan.

One individual who will not attend is Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who is sending his deputy in his place.

While many conservatives support holding the ceremony, some remain opposed.

On April 12, right-wingers gathered in front of the Tokyo headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party waving Hinomaru national flags and shouting that the emperor should not be used politically to divide public opinion.

That very same criticism was leveled at the Democratic Party of Japan when it was still in control of government.

It came about because of a visit that then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping made to Japan in December 2009. The Imperial Household Agency initially rejected a request for a meeting between Xi and Akihito on grounds it was made too soon before Xi's arrival in Japan and was a breach of established protocol.

However, the prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, pressed the matter with officials, who reluctantly agreed to the meeting.

The LDP, which was then in opposition, rounded on the DPJ, accusing it of using the emperor for political ends.

As for the ceremony this month, the Imperial Household Agency found no reason to object.

"We were presented with the details of the ceremony from government officials and made the decision to ask the emperor and empress to attend," said Grand Steward Noriyuki Kazaoka.

However, a former agency official said, "Their majesties should not be brought into an event that has led to opposition from Okinawa."

One 74-year-old Okinawa resident who has been protesting the deployment of the U.S. military transport aircraft Osprey to Okinawa called the ceremony "a political event planned by an administration that is intent on revising the Constitution."

Okinawa has long had a delicate relationship with the imperial family.

Shock waves reverberated through Okinawa in 1979 following the discovery of a document in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration which included a message from the current emperor's father asking U.S. occupation forces in 1947 to remain in Okinawa.

Eiichi Shindo, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Tsukuba who uncovered that document, said, "There are still many people in Okinawa who feel they were abandoned. In light of this, I don't think the emperor should attend the ceremony."

Emperor Showa, the posthumous name for Emperor Hirohito, never visited Okinawa after the end of World War II. When a national sports festival was held in Okinawa in 1987, Akihito, who was then crown prince, attended in his father's place and read out a message.

Akihito first visited Okinawa in 1975. Although there was an incident in which a Molotov cocktail was hurled in his direction, Akihito and Michiko have continued to visit Okinawa.

A visit they made in November was their ninth to the southernmost prefecture.

At a December 2003 news conference, Akihito said: "Okinawa was returned to Japan 20 years after the peace treaty went into effect. All Japanese must deepen their understanding toward Okinawa."

For its part, the Abe administration is perplexed by the controversy that is raging.

The LDP included in its policy document compiled for the December Lower House election clear mention that a ceremony would be held to commemorate the return of sovereignty if the party regained control of the government. Abe himself took the lead in going ahead with plans for the ceremony. The administration arranged for the timing of the event to allow the imperial couple to attend.

The opposition arising from Okinawa--which many people might say was foreseeable--was one factor government officials did not take into consideration.

Because the government has already announced the imperial couple would attend, officials now feel they cannot change that plan.

In an effort to appease Okinawa sentiment, it was proposed that the central government organize a ceremony on May 15 to commemorate Okinawa's return to Japan. However, there was insufficient time to prepare for such an event.

Experts were split in their views about whether the emperor should attend.

Takeshi Kobayashi, a visiting professor of constitutional law at Okinawa University, said: "With people in Okinawa referring to the date as a 'day of humiliation,' a sharp division has emerged in public opinion. Because the Constitution defines the emperor as 'the symbol of the unity of the people,' he should not be allowed to participate in an event which has divided public opinion."

However, Makoto Watanabe, a former grand steward, said there was no provision in the Constitution which could serve as a basis for refusing to attend.

"If the emperor said he would not attend, that would end up being a political act by him," Watanabe said. "While sufficient consideration should be given to the people of Okinawa, there is no problem in having the imperial couple attend the ceremony."

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Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend a ceremony in Okinawa in November 2012. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend a ceremony in Okinawa in November 2012. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend a ceremony in Okinawa in November 2012. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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