‘Heavenly’ Monarch : Japan Issue: Words Fit for an Emperor

Times Staff Writer

When Emperor Hirohito died Jan. 7, many average Japanese found themselves staring at a word in two-inch-high banner headlines that they had never seen or heard before.

Older Japanese who remembered what they were taught in school before 1945 knew what it meant and that it could refer only to a Japanese emperor, or a Japanese emperor’s wife, mother or grandmother. But younger Japanese had to rely on deduction.

The size of the headline type and the knowledge that Hirohito, 87, who assumed the throne in 1926, had been gravely ill for nearly four months led most of them to guess correctly that the strange word, hogyo, meant “death.”

Confounding Language

It is one of a host of words used only in reference to the emperor that are now confounding ordinary Japanese as a change of monarchs focuses new attention on Japan’s imperial institution.


The practice, which helps create an otherworldly aura of reverence to ultimate superiority, remains largely unquestioned. But to some critics, who cite the postwar constitution that was supposed to have transformed the emperor from a god-like high priest into an ordinary mortal, a symbol of the unity of the Japanese people, word usage has become a new controversy.

Imperial parlance, complained Naoki Inose, an author and critic who has written several books about Japan’s imperial institution and its members, serves to build a unique national identity, setting Japan above--and sometimes apart from--other countries. Thus, not only does it help shape how Japanese view the imperial role, but it also aids in defining Japan’s view of itself.

More Than Titles

It is not merely obscure titles of court ceremonies revolving around the succession of a new emperor that are causing trouble.

Hirohito’s Feb. 24 state funeral, for example, will not be called a “state funeral.” It will be the “rite of great mourning.”

Historical references to actions that were taken in the emperor’s name under the pre-war constitution are still called go-seidan (honorable holy decision)--in other words, a decision allegedly made by the emperor. No prime minister of Japan has ever been credited with such lofty ability.

In normal days, Japan’s emperor does not give “press conferences,” although reporters who have attended them ask questions and receive answers. The emperor gives only “audiences” in the view of the Imperial Household Agency.

Speeches given by the emperor are not speeches. They are “honorable words.”

And when the emperor goes to a baseball game or a sumo wrestling match, it is not simply a sporting event. Characters meaning “heaven” and “view” are used to describe the occasion.

The word for Japan’s monarch, tenno (heavenly emperor), itself is unique. Historical emperors in other countries are kotei --just plain emperors.

“The Hapsburgs of Austria seized power. ‘Tenno’ was given it by heaven--in myth,” Inose said.

Reforms carried out by American postwar occupation authorities and continued by the Japanese themselves eliminated much of the mythology, as well as many historical facts, about Japan’s emperors that existed in pre-1945 textbooks. Schoolchildren, for example, were relieved of the necessity of memorizing the names of all 124 monarchs.

Newspapers also have simplified imperial language. But it is simpler only in comparison to what it used to be.

The Japanese language normally is structured into three distinct levels of politeness. One can talk down, or up, to a person, or speak on a level of equality.

But when referring to the emperor or the Imperial Family, a fourth level of ultra-subservience emerges. Every noun and verb changes form. Honorifics and the passive voice--or sometimes both--are used, thwarting attempts to translate directly into English. No equivalent grammar exists.

Although pre-1945 special words used for an outing by the emperor have been discarded, it is still not acceptable to say that the emperor “went to” or “came from.” It must be oide ni naru” --literally, “the honorable going (or coming) became.”

Analyzed part by part, that’s o as an honorific, ide for go (or come), ni naru for become.

Such flowery language is used in formal situations to refer to eminent figures of a lesser standing than the Imperial Family. But newspapers and TV stations use it only for the Japanese royalty.

Even hogyo, an honorific unto itself, was used in the passive voice as a verb to become “was demised” in newspapers.

Among friends, Japanese, particularly younger people, pay little attention to linguistic protocols, not even for the emperor. In private conversations, most Japanese do say, “the emperor went” or “the emperor came”--not “the honorable going (or coming) became,” Inose said.

Occasionally, some become quite irreverent. At one point in an interview, for example, Inose referred to the emperor as “Japan’s C.I.” C.I. is advertising lingo for “corporate identity.”

Leftists wear their ideology on their shirt sleeves by going to extremes to be insulting, calling Hirohito, while he was alive, ten-chan (“chan” is an appellation used for children) and referring to Akihito, as crown prince, as “chibi-ten” (peewee emperor). But as Marxist ideology has faded from Japan in recent years, so, too, has the use of such words.

According to the Japan Publishers Assn., only five of its 114 member newspapers failed to use hogyo for the emperor’s death in their banner headlines. Two of them, both in Okinawa, and a non-member newspaper, Akahata (Red Flag), organ of the Communist Party, had their own political reasons for demurring.

Akahata used the polite but ordinary word for death, shikyo, with no honorific attached. The Okinawa Times and the four other newspapers belonging to the publishers association used go-seikyo, the word for death of an eminent person, with an honorific attached.

The Communists advocate abolishing the imperial system itself. Okinawan Japanese have never forgotten the sacrifice of about 200,000 civilian lives--a third of the population of the prefecture, or state, in 1945--that they made in fighting an American invasion in a futile attempt to defend the mainland in World War II. That Americans then kept control until 1972, after the mainland won its own independence in 1952, also has not been forgotten.

The declaration of war made in the name of the emperor caused Okinawa to “become a stone that was thrown away to defend the mainland,” Ryoichi Toyohira, managing editor of the Okinawa Times, said in an interview with the Asahi newspaper.

The Okinawa Times, he said, received eight phone calls of protest but hundreds of calls praising the use of go-seikyo in its headline. All eight protests, he added, came from mainland Japanese now living in the southernmost prefecture.

Toyohira, however, acknowledged that the newspaper engaged in an intense debate over whether to use hogyo or go-seikyo. He said he reached the conclusion that the newspaper should use a word that everybody understood. Even some senior editors born in pre-war days did not understand hogyo, he said.

To have used it, Toyohira argued, would reverse the flow of history.

“In the postwar era, the emperor became a ‘human emperor.’ So I thought a word appropriate to that fact ought to be used,” he told the Asahi.

The fundamental reason, however, was Okinawa’s history of being subjected to rule by mainlanders and its wartime experience, Tomihira said. “Okinawa people don’t feel as close to the Imperial Family as Japanese from other prefectures do,” he said.

In recent years, Japanese have paid little attention to their Imperial Family. To author Inose, the level of attention has been too little since 1945, just as it was too much before the nation’s defeat in war.

He predicted that after the rites of imperial succession end next year, the Imperial Family will once again fade back into obscurity.

But in one aspect--the Japan gengo, or era, system--Japanese cannot get away from their emperor.

Although the use of words that refer only to the emperor causes only minor trouble in daily life, the counting of time according to the demise of a single individual truly sets the emperor and the entire Japanese nation apart. Official documents and yen coins use years numbered ferom the year in which an emperor takes the throne, with 1989 now being Heisei 1 for Akihito’s era.

Because the Showa Era of Hirohito continued for 64 years, mass media and most Japanese used Showa dates regularly--so much so that foreigners often have difficulty making themselves understood to Japanese if they use Gregorian calendar dates.