Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Emperor's speech.

As his country faces its worst crisis since the end of the Second World War, the Emperor of Japan did something today that he has never done before: he delivered a televised address to the nation. Here's more on the speech and reactions from the Japanese public, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:
In a move that underscored the extraordinary turn of events that have unfolded since Friday and tapped into the tense mood of the nation, Japan's rarely seen emperor urged the stricken country not to give up and said he was "deeply concerned" about the unfolding nuclear crisis in an unprecedented video address.

Speaking slowly and deliberately, Emperor Akihito, 77 years old, said: "I hope that those affected by the earthquake will not give up hope and will strive to survive, while taking care of their health." The address lasted roughly five minutes, and all major television stations simultaneously broadcast the recorded message at 4.30 p.m. on Wednesday.

The short address came as panic and fear were mounting in Japan over the country's unfolding nuclear crisis. Though the imperial family in Japan is seen by some Japanese — especially the younger generation — as an anachronism, Emperor Akihito is still held in high regard by many, particularly among older Japanese.
Even though the WSJ insists that young people are less respectful of the monarchy than their elders, the quotations chosen for the article tend to give the opposite impression:
Many observers were stunned that the emperor gave such an address.

"I'm shocked that the Emperor actually agreed to do it. This is an extremely rare occurrence, and I'm humbled," said Keiko Matsumoto, 48, a businesswoman. "If the emperor says we need to come together, help each other, and work hard to get over this crisis, then those words mean a lot to me coming from him, and that's what I'll do."

Others said that the emperor's address resonated with them, in stark contrast with speeches by politicians and Prime Minister Naoto Kan, which had left them cold. "What Mr. Kan says or politicians say are not convincing at all, and I don't understand what they are saying very much," said Mami Saotome, 23, who works in the financial industry in Tokyo. "When the emperor speaks, I listen to his words."

. . .

Still, others in Japan weren't so impressed by the broadcast. "I saw the broadcast. I must profess that I have no great love for the emperor," said Tatsuo Horikawa, 77, a retired Tokyo resident. "People of my generation feel a little differently toward the imperial family than, say, their parents, who generally harbor a deeper reverence — or at least respect. But growing up in the aftermath of [World War II], I came to realize that a lot of the hardship we went through was due at least in part to the fact that people in authority — like the emperor — who could have done something to make our lives better, simply didn't."
To be fair to the WSJ reporters who composed the article, I don't think the comments of three individuals can necessarily be taken as a gauge of public opinion at large. Even so, I find it striking that the younger people quoted in the article viewed the Emperor in positive terms as a symbolic father of the nation, someone more trustworthy than elected politicians, while an older viewer reacts with cynicism forged in the crucible of war.

The generational divide suggested by the different quotations in the WSJ article seems to be between those whose views of Japan's ancient monarchy were shaped by the devastation of the Second World War and its aftermath and those who grew up in peaceful and prosperous times and perhaps regard the Emperor as a benign representative of continuity and stability. Given the limits of my knowledge of Japanese culture and society, I'll conclude with the humble observation that reactions to the Emperor's speech may reveal something significant about the place of historical memory in the present. AMDG.


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