Japan’s Other Emperor

Taoist Politics and the Nancho Resurgence

With the sokuirei (Ceremony of Ascension) for Emperor Naruhito having taken place on Oct. 22, 2019—the grandest of celebrations marking a new future for the Chrysanthemum Throne—we’re looking back a piece from KJ Issue 9 (Winter 1989), “Japan’s Other Emperor.” Author David Kubiak presents a lively and engrossing romp through Japan’s history of imperial ascension, navigating the motley of plotting, deception, spiritualism, and debauchery that wrought the path to the Throne from the 14th to 20th centuries. Filled with excellent anecdotes (including where the family name Kumazawa, or “bear swamp”, originates) Kubiak’s writing remains a refreshing look at the context that has led to the festivities we see today.



Now that the media are awash with wistful adjectives of passage and the ephemeral, it might help to remember that even in politics some things last. Usually from being buried. Like the ancient, still unexploded dynamite of Korean corpses in old Tenno (Emperor) tombs. Or like one stubborn Nancho family’s 600-year-old claim to the Chrysanthemum Throne-a-claim, by the way, which could radically transform the mournful political climate of the next two years. The Korean matter will doubtless blow up in its own sweet time, but the Nancho claim is at issue now and deserves some immediate attention.

The story begins, as most good imperial tales do, long long ago, at the turn of the 14th century, in the twilight of the Kamakura bakufu (military government). The ruling warrior clan of Hojo, grown corrupt and dissolute from too many years at the trough, was doing terribly in the polls. The monasteries were restive, the nobles disaffected, and the commoners uncommonly aggrieved. But no one saw much hope of reform, let alone a revolution, until the enthronement of Nancho-founder Godaigo, Tenno #96, in 1318.

For generations the Hojo had cultivated a rift in the imperial line that pitted the progeny of two brother emperors against each other. The rules of the age declared that each Tenno was to serve approximately ten years before abdicating to a crown prince selected from the rival line. On abdication one faction habitually repaired to monkhood at Daikakuji Temple and was thus known as the Daikakuji line, while the other retreated to cloister at Jimyoin Temple and became the Jimyoin line. The Hojo refereed the alternations and exercised veto power over all proposed candidates. They appeared to prefer their princes young, pink and simple; most late-Kamakura Tenno were between four and puberty when enthroned. This state of affairs served the Kanta authorities admirably, assuring there was always: a) a political incompetent on the throne; b) an endless torrent of invidious intelligence on the in crowd’s activities from the idling out’s; and c) a plethora of retired Tenno around (sometimes as many as five) intriguing against, tripping over and generally exhausting each other.

The military power brokers allowed no real authority to the throne, so most Court intrigue centered on petty issues of privilege and protocol. The incessant bickering gradually compromised the moral standing, knowledge of governance and political relevance of both sides. This was, needless to say, just dandy by the Hojo who had been striving to trivialize the Court for near a century.

Kamakura’s cradle-robbing was working out superbly well until one early 14th-century swap found Daikakuji with its nursery bare, and the Hojo grudgingly approved a manly aberration named Godaigo to succeed. The Court’s juvenile business­ as-usual was abruptly thrown into ambitious confusion by this prince’s something­ elseness. At his accession Godaigo was thirty-one, randy to a fault and suspiciously well versed in the myths and history of direct imperial power. A bright, persuasive idealist, he had divided his decade as crown prince between livening up the ladies quarters and plotting the destruction of the bakufu. By the time of his enthronement Godaigo’s vision ranged far beyond the effete suffocated court, to a national revolution and return to Taoist governance.

For Godaigo, the golden age was the Engi period (901-922 AD) when Kyoto flourished in peace and security, fish were jumping and the living was high. So high, according to the classics, that the Tenno was reputed to have ruled the land through sheer empathy! The emperor felt the people’s will and reflected it in his action. The people felt the Tenno’s benevolence and emulated it in their life. Taoists called it the cycle of immanent virtue and the secret of social harmony.


Emperor Godaigo

Emperor Godaigo, Notional Treasure, Oaitokuji-so


Godaigo found this all an inspiration. No more need of spies, smelly warriors, sadistic cops, the uncouth trappings of rule. No more of Kanto’s influence, meddling and corruption. No more military/imperial compromise. “Paradise!” he sighed and set forth to build his promised land. If Godaigo was a bit naive regarding ends, he compensated with street-smart means. To plot strategy the earthy Tenno started the egalitarian Bureiko (Free and Easy Club) which according to Sansom: “met at parties where, to put it mildly, all formality was banned. This had the advantage that persons of different ranks could talk without reserve or circum­spection. (Monks, nobles, warriors and scholars] would sit and drink in extreme dishabille, half-naked, hair loose… They were waited upon by a score of beautiful girls of about seventeen, in diaphanous garments, serving delicacies of all kinds and pouring wine as if from a spring. All present enjoyed singing and dancing. But in the midst of these riotous pleasures only one thing was discussed – how to destroy ‘the savages in the East,’ the Kamakura bakufu.” (A History of Japan)

Godaigo used his status as a spiritual leader to sow his conspiring sons through the anti-Hojo Buddhist hierarchy. He cited the hardship among his era’s farmers as reason to tour the militant temples where he prayed, bargained and gathered allies. (History doesn’t record whether they met at an altar or an orgy, but Godaigo’s most fortuitous find of this period was Kusunoki Masashige-educated bandit, loyalist and strategic genius from the mountain wilds of Kawachi.)

Godaigo’s careful plotting, however, was revealed to Kamakura by a Jimyoin spy and things got off to a disastrous start. Godaigo was captured by bakufu troops and exiled to a small rock in the sea. But Kusunoki remained at large, wreaking havoc on Hojo forces with nasty guerrilla surprises. He finally enraged their three main Kansai armies into attacking him simultaneously at Chihaya, his rustic mountaintop fortress up in moonshine country. Outnumbered nearly a hundred to one, Kusunoki’s ragtag troops still decimated the Hojo legions with lethal pitfalls, ambushes and boobytraps. (And with a bit of wit – the upper-caste attackers’ first and final attempt at mass wall-scaling met with a scalding deluge of Chihaya latrine sweets.) After weeks of aborted offensives and humiliating defeats the Hojo survivors fled in stench and confusion. When the headlines reached the provinces there was pandemonium. The mumbling fatalistic crowd suddenly awoke to Kanto’s vulnerability and began flocking to Godaigo’s cause. His irregulars won a few more skirmishes and he was soon reunited with Kusunoki and his other supporters for a triumphal return to Kyoto. Unfortunately, during his 20-year tenure winning was often harder on Godaigo than losing.

Taoists drew strength from the spiritual resonance of awareness, nature and sensual pleasure and sought spontaneous lives beyond organizational constraint. Godaigo invoked these ideals to serve his small Bureiko cabal. The Court, however, was vast and an organized hierarchy in itself. And when, after years of fighting for it, its scale and complexity finally thwarted him, botching his early reforms, he laughed strangely and locked himself up in the harem.

To make matters worse, the wounded Hojo and their hired cutlery were never very far out of the picture. A lot of intense adrenal history happened then-events of lust, stupidity, valor and more stupidity. But mostly a lot of fighting and running in and out of Kyoto by all parties involved. The urban warfare got on the nobles’ nerves as they had serious property values at stake and this led to the greatest stupidity of all.

Ashikaga Takauji, the turncoat Kamakura general whose timely betrayal “on behalf of the Throne” finally destroyed Hojo power in 1333, was astonished to find Godaigo was serious about not setting up another bakufu, let alone naming Takauji to head it. He marched up to Kanto in a snit and pronounced himself in charge anyway. Scrounging up a feckless Jimyoin prince, Takauji declared him emperor and marched back west to liberate Kyoto in his name.

Fast forward here through several years and a few more reels of hacking, screaming and racing around, the throne changing bottoms a few more times, until finally Godaigo is sitting in state again, Kusunoki is guarding the city and Takauji returns from a Kyushu retreat with a huge replenished army for the Final Assault. Badly outnumbered, Kusunoki wants to let them flow into the city and then chop them to catfood in the narrow backstreets. The nobles in turn demand that all the bloody, sweaty stuff be conducted as far from their tea rooms as possible. Godaigo, who is, alas, caught up in real estate schemes of his own, votes with his blood instead of his brains and condemns his greatest ally to engage Takauji out in the open boonies. And Kusunoki, to the horror of the cast, stoically, loyally obeys and marches off to certain death. His touching farewell to his son before the battle, his defiant oath of “Seven lives for the Empire” and his manly harakiri after final defeat-all are revered rightist themes to this day. (In fact, as we shall see, Nancho probably owes its enduring renown more to this single imbecilic show of obedience than any other factor.)

At any rate Takauji grabbed and held Kyoto, Godaigo bundled up the imperial regalia and took refuge to the south in the mountains of Yoshino. There he began Nancho, the Southern  Court,  and  50 years of civil war with the Ashikaga and their puppet Hokucho (Northern Court) sovereigns. Godaigo died soon after arrival in 1339, but three successive heirs doggedly took up the Nancho cudgel, winning some and losing some, until Gokameyama Tenno, Godaigo’s grandson, decided things were going nowhere for either side and credulously accepted an Ashikaga peace bid. After insufficient meditation and ample warnings from suspicious retainers, Gokameyama descended to Kyoto with the regalia. Meeting in state at Daikakuji, he signed a “sacred covenant” with Northern Tenno Gokomatsu and the Ashikaga shogun guaranteeing a return to the alternate-ten­ year-reign formula, and abdicated in favor of his 16-year-old Hokucho rival. Gokomatsu, with Ashikaga backing, broke the treaty with dispatch, not only serving twice the agreed tenure but also naming his own 12-year-old son Shoko as crown prince. This betrayal was a mortal coup to Nancho hopes and sparked some violent and quickly snuffed protests among Southern partisans. Nancho appeared to evaporate at this point as its viable heirs met one by one with untimely, violent accidents. (Gokameyama’s wary old Yoshino retainers laughed last, however. Smelling foul play from the first, they had hung back at the mountain stronghold. When the Kyoto carnage began they scuttled safely off to the north with two young princes of the blood.)


Nurturing the flame

Shoko’s accession not only dishonored, and in some eyes invalidated, the Hokucho line, it also foreshadowed a bad six centuries for Japanese womanhood. Ponsonby-Fain, gentlest of Imperial biographers, describes this Tenno as “a man of somewhat peculiar character. Though a fervent Buddhist and eschewing all meat he was much addicted to drink, and when under its influence became at times violent, amusing himself by hitting the palace women with the back of his sword and such-like exploits.” (The Imperial Family of Japan)

Outside too, things went from bad to worse. The Ashikaga, quickly surpassing the Hojo in profligate indulgence, bankrupted the treasury and lost control of the provinces, including the imperial estates whose revenues supported Hokucho aristocracy. The Court was plunged first into beggary and then into devastating civil wars that burned back and forth through Kyoto for more than a century. Through it all, however, the Hokucho “sovereigns” remained remarkably good sports, offering tea, sympathy and good offices to whoever happened to capture the town that day. Their amoral opportunism finally pulled them through to the 16th century and the safety and subsistence of Tokugawa patronage. They survived the Edo era in genteel poverty on bakufu handouts.

Across history, records Ponsonby-Fain, the Nancho and the Hokucho “remained extraordinarily true to type. All the Nancho or Daikakuji heirs were fired with intense zeal and enthusiasm for the overthrow of military power and the restoration of Imperial primacy; whereas the Hokucho heirs were entirely pusillanimous and content to suffer almost any humiliation provided they enjoyed the sweets of office.”

In retrospect Godaigo is a very mixed bag, responsible for reprehensible deeds as well as intriguing folly. Among his virtues, and central to this discussion, were his courageous efforts to create a non-violent Taoist society and an abiding faith in man ‘s largely uncharted potentials.

For the two young princes fleeing Ashikaga’s royal birth controllers, this was their sustaining patrimony. And thy took the ideal back to the woods and villages where it was born. After decades of wandering the wild northeast, stone carving prayers to mark their passage, Godaigo’s last heirs settled in the rich secluded valleys of Aichi. There they tilled, told their tales and kept scrupulous genealogies. There they intermarried with commoners and took the name Kumazawa. (Literally, “bear swamp”. Some descendants trace the choice to a parable-loving ancestor who noted that Japan’s lordly bears repair to bogs only when threatened or attacked. There, briars guard their flanks and the slick trackless wastes deprive their pursuers of bearings, purchase and ferocity. Crafty metaphor, but the aptness and survival of the Kumazawa name probably had as much to do with the clan’s centuries of swamp­ like silence as with their bearish sagacity.)

At any rate, they farmed well, prospered and maintained a respect for literacy and learning. By the Tokugawa period they were sending out bright scions, like the rabble-rousing Confucianist critic Kumazawa Banzan, to explore and engage the great Edo culture.

At the turn of this century Kumazawa Taizen, Nancho heir of his generation and charismatic lay preacher at Tokyo’s Enkoji Temple, decided to make the family’s first claim in over 500 years. At the temple he gathered a devoted following of aristocratic wives, who interceded with husbands to present his documentation to the Court. Hence in Meiji 39 (1906) in a petition cosigned by a count, a viscount and a baron, Taizen sued for justice and a hearing before the Tenno and his ministries. After some scholarly review and a long and bitter controversy in the Diet, Emperor Meiji declared Nancho the historically legitimate line, ruled Taizen the true heir and offered him an audience to discuss the sticky question of what to do next.

Ultranationalists of the period, busy with colonial forays into Asia, knew exactly what to do with Nancho, however. The issue had taken on patriotic significance as the “glorious and unbroken imperial succession” became a nationalist symbol of Japan’s uniqueness, superiority and manifest destiny. Unfortunately, tracing the line from god-born Jimmu Tenno through Ashikaga’s Hokucho branch or Yoshino’s Nancho diversion yielded quite different counts. Meiji’s successor, for example, would be either Tenno #126 or Tenno # 122. Since either/or uncertainties have never been sympathetic to absolutists, a clear-cut decision on the imperial arithmetic was demanded.

And here again the loyal bandit Kusunoki bursts from the underbrush to rescue his embattled sovereign ‘s banner. Meiji militarists just loved the Kusunoki drama, especially the “Seven lives for the Empire” bit and the tragic last act. Sensing wide political utility in the tale, they wanted to boom it through the schools and media to apotheosize the suicidal obedience now expected from the people. Since Kusunoki’s devotion was inseparable from Godaigo’s cause, Diet rightists became born-again Nancho partisans, and mounted the strenuous and successful fight for its recognition.

Waiting for his congratulatory Imperial audience, Taizen was prepped in realpolitik by the Secretary of Home Affairs. His journal records the gentle warning: “Before your conference it is our pleasure to inform you that your family has been recognized as the true successor of the Southern Court. Unlike ordinary aristocrats you are descended from a glorious line that rightfully held the Imperial regalia. Now regarding your audience, it is true the present Emperor is descended from the Northern Court. But you will kindly bear in mind that this is also the Emperor who fought and won the Sino-Japanese war, who then engaged and routed mighty Russia… Conduct yourself accordingly.”

Unfortunately, whether due to a Kumazawa attitude problem or vicissitudes of state, the meeting was several times postponed and never transpired. The years later. Ironically Taizen himself remained only a peripheral figure in the great Nancho debate. His line ‘s righteous plaint and principles were romantic through the haze of history,  but up close, in the flesh, and seconded by important friends, they were inconvenient in the extreme. No one wanted to face up to the logical or what-to-do-about-the-Kumazawa dilemma was apparently returned to committee where it languished until Meiji’ s passing a few legal implications of the case and he was quietly ushered back to the temple with a polite but imperative “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”


The Modern Alternative

During the twenties and thirties the family was sporadically hassled for loose talk and Iesemajeste. After Taizen’s death in 1929 the thought police dropped by so often that his eldest son, Hiromichi, took to the road and a long picaresque career as monk, farmer, peddler and shopkeeper. Official suspicions were ultimately vindicated when, on January 17, 1946, 56-year-old Hiromichi stepped out of a taxi at MacArthur ‘s General Headquarters wearing the chrysanthemum crest and flanked by two “retainers” lugging six kilos of explosive documents.

“Pretender Claims Hirohito’ s Throne!” screamed the next day’s Pacific Stars & Stripes above a long story detailing Nancho’s history and familial hardships. The tone of the piece is peculiarly respectful, depicting Hiromichi as “a tall” and dignified, quiet-spoken man ” who thinks the war was wrong, Hirohito is accountable and a MacArthur investigation of his claim would see the Nancho returned  to the throne and  a “historical  injustice eradicated.” It closes with his confident prophecy that “a new Japan will arise with restoration of the proper imperial family.”

MacArthur, meanwhile, had an entirely different game plan for the “new Japan” and was anxiously trying to keep the cooperative Hokucho heir from justice. The problem was coincidentally highlighted by an adjacent article in the same paper, headlined “ANZACS Names Emperor as Criminal.” It ran, “Australia and New Zealand have tossed a bombshell into preparations for the trial of Japan’s major war criminal suspects by naming Emperor Hirohito at the head of their lists. . . It is understood that some effort is being made to have the Japanese ruler’s name deleted, as its inclusion would cause considerable embarrassment at SCAP headquarters which has been trying to keep the Emperor out of this delicate situation… It is assumed Australia’s and New Zealand’s demands will be subordinated if they cannot be persuaded to delete Hirohito’s name.”


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Emperor Hiromichi, photo by Alfred Eisensloed, Jan. 21, 1946


The last thing MacArthur wanted at this juncture was an apparently reasonable alternative to the collaborating Tenno. His men were therefore instructed to tell Hiromichi that his claim was a matter of such profound social and historical significance that it could only be properly adjudicated by Japanese courts, and to show him the door.

Hiromichi summoned the lawyers of his coterie and duly prepared a case. The judiciary bounced it around for a couple years before deciding, in apparent relief, that they had no jurisdiction over 14th-century writs and instruments, anyway. “Why not,” they suggested, “let the people decide?”

So Hiromichi hit the road again, barnstorming around the nation’s theaters, temples and village halls. By 1950 his enthusiastic adherents numbered in the tens of thousands and Kurnazawa Tenno rallies became provincial sensations. They apparently worked something like American chautauqua meetings – part history lesson, part show business, part populist revival. As a motto Kumazawa took the wisdom the court had bestowed, and his meetings would often break up with the chant “Yeah, let the people decide!”

The politics surrounding the campaign were quirky and hopeful. Even the curious figure up on stage speaking truth about the war and asking to be their new emperor showed that the country had come a long way very fast. Using all the psychology he had learned as a Buddhist preacher and street peddler, Hiromichi wove spells around his audiences. Or, more accurately, he pulled them together, told them they deserved some control and respect, that the choices were theirs, and allowed them to charm themselves with the prospects. He stressed a human-scale future and respect for the past. He had lived the same lives as his listeners, though more precariously than most, and their concerns were truly his. One old witness remembers, “You left the hall wanting to paint over all the ‘Japan’ signs with ‘Nippon’, even ‘Dai Nippon,’ and yet you were very conscious of the world, of what we owed other countries, Asia. Or of our debt to America, how close we had come to disaster. . .”

Hiromichi himself apparently remained grateful to the Allies even after the SCAP brushoff. But generally, populist sentiments about the Occupation ran hot and cold. Hot when GHQ’s fiery New Deal lawyers promised them “a hand in the future” and lasting reforms; cold when SCAP went into business with the old guard. After Mao took over China and Korea heated up, SCAP was taken over by CIA types who didn’t like people in movement period. They hurt the unions while boosting the war industries and the gangsters. They turned heavy-duty war criminals loose with big money in their pockets to help SCAP maintain “social harmony”. “A-Class” rogues such as Kishi, Kodama and Sasagawa profited immensely by reviving the mobs and rescuing the patriotic societies. Kishi made prime minister; Kodama became one of Japan’s three most powerful men; and Sasagawa Ryoichi, self-proclaimed “world’s richest fascist,” was last seen jogging around Africa with Jimmy Carter and the Gandhi Peace Prize in his pocket. Older activists especially have a hard time feeling too pro-American about those days.

One of the attractions of Hiromichi’s gospel was the ease with which he proposed national absolution and self-forgiveness. He gave the impression Japan could somehow shift responsibility for all its natural and unnatural disasters over the last 500 years onto a dead emperor’s perfidy, his mortal breach of faith with divinity. “A  festering sin of history,” he called it and professed Japan’s citizens could cure it all in a single stroke by heeding that fateful covenant, by returning the throne. Takanobu, Hiromichi’s eldest son remembers, “Neither my father or grandfather ever asked for more than a return to the observance of the 1392 Compact and the restoration of honor, not theirs so much as that of the throne itself.”

They were basically just saying that for Nippon to become truly great we must be honest with ourselves. We must face our history, take responsibility for our mistakes and move on from there. They were of course concerned with injustices against the family, but many other more tragic things happened here over those centuries and they too must be confronted and if possible rectified.

“The usurpation of Nancho is perhaps only one small problem but it’s symbolically important. The emperor as symbol of our people should express the truth of our history. If this great position is gained or maintained dishonestly it sets a damaging precedent for the whole society.”

And whether the audience believed in Buddhist karma or the power of Shinto oaths to Amaterasu, they all had some sense of what he was trying to say.

The funny thing is that he might have been right. By shifting the blame the people might have been able to start clean, releasing guilt and fresh energy, like the post-tyrant jubilees of recent Third World history. New freedoms were corning to them from SCAP, of course, but losing the war was not exactly their own achievement.

Since they could take no real credit for the democracy they enjoyed, there was perhaps less motivation to preserve or extend it. Things were being done for them, to them. They needed to do something for them­ selves. “If we are such a special people, let’s see us do some special things,” he taunted them, of course suggesting they begin by taking their most ancient and sacred institution in hand. Japan must be redeemed. And they could do it! The crowds listened and cheered and prayed he was right. He wasn’t, of course. At least no one ever found out.

Movements of hope are often as fragile as bubbles and when they stop growing they start to die. When Hiromichi’ s supporters saw the political skies close up in the early fifties, saw that however right this man might be his chances of success were now receding, they pulled up their collars and started to drift away. Hiromichi continued to stump the countryside but the crowds grew leaner and quieter. He finally had no convincing answer to citizens asking just how they were supposed to express this sovereign will of theirs. “Let the people decide!” had a fine ring to it but where did society permit such decision­ ranking? The government didn’t even allow jury trials, let alone plebiscites.

Hiromichi maintained a few stalwarts but slowly he began to provoke more mirth than hope, more pity than passion. In the late fifties he finally retired to a Nichiren temple sinecure in Tokyo, a position once compared to that of old-boxing-champ doormen at Las Vegas casinos. He died there of cancer in 1966.

And now what? It turns out there is another window of opportunity open ahead. Each emperor-to-be is given a two-year trial period or courtship with Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess and national deity. Hours after his predecessor succumbs the prince designate performs a perfunctory accession rite and accepts the symbols of sovereignty, the seals and petty duties of state. But he must wait years for the epiphany that consecrates him as the chosen of Amaterasu. In a ceremony called the daijosai the imperial aspirant purifies himself, prepares a feast and waits alone with it in a sacred hut. If she appears, if they touch, embrace and fuse, then the human walks out a Tenno, possessed of godhead and grave responsibility. After this fateful private tryst, writes HoItorn in The Japanese Enthronement Ceremonies, our man emerges as “a sacred living kami (god or divine power) in whose magical person is enfolded the entire welfare of the people, their protection from evil, both human and superhuman, their representation before the kami of heaven and earth, and above all their food.” Now that’s a potent political personage you might expect, and one whom the postwar Constitution was expressly designed to emasculate.

This millennia-old tantric seance pits the force of Japanese antiquity and tribal essence against the flimsy legality of the foreign-ghosted charter for the first time. Suppose our man bursts from the shack, intoxicated with visions and conviction. Suppose he strides up to the world’s cameras and in moving voice proclaims, “With full gratitude to our gods, ancestors, and foreign mentors we today announce Nippon’s coming of age. We shall henceforth set our own course, write our own Constitution, invent our own future. The apprenticeship is over. Novice Japan is dead. Long live Dai Nippon!”

And what else might he say and how would a Japanese nation hungry for direction and identity respond? And just what if the face at the cameras was not. . . not the one whom you expected? What then? Let the people decide…?

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David Kubiak

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