From absolute monarch to ‘symbol emperor’
Decolonisationand the Japanese emperor after 1945
in Monarchies and decolonisation in Asia
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Defeat in 1945 brought the end of the Japanese empire and occupation by foreign powers for the first time in Japanese history. As the American-dominated Occupation introduced radical reforms of democratisation in politics and society, debates among the Allies and Japanese raged over the fate and future of both the person of Hirohito and the institution of the emperor. The new constitution in 1946 transformed the emperor from an absolute monarch to a symbol emperor. This was widely supported in the decade after the Occupation ended in 1952. However, because Hirohito remained on the throne until his death in 1989, the issue of his war responsibility did not disappear at home or abroad. The Japanese left remained vigilant against revival of the ‘emperor system’ (tennôsei) while the far right criticised media treatment of the imperial family as ‘celebrity stars’. Conservative Liberal Democratic Party governments kept the monarchy important in Japanese culture and society, ignoring Emperors Akihito and Naruhito’s expressions of ‘remorse’ for the war while endeavouring to carry out their constitutional role as ‘symbol of the state’.

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