Friday, July 11, 2014

Consort Profile: Empress Kojun of Japan

There are certain monarchs that have always impressed me as being ‘a monarchists’ monarch’. Putting aside their positive or negative abilities as national leaders, these were monarchs who really believed in monarchy, in traditional authority and who had a monarchist sort of mindset that guided them in their lives. One does not always think of ‘a monarchists’ consort’ but Her Majesty Empress Kojun of Japan was certainly such a consort. She was the longest-living Empress consort in Japanese history and she was the last living link with the old Japan that existed at the turn of the last century. She lived through both world wars, saw the Empire of Japan reached its zenith of power and prestige as well as seeing it utterly destroyed. Happily, she also lived to see the new State of Japan come roaring back as a successful and industrious country, the second biggest economic power house in the world. Yet, through it all, she was known as the most attached to traditional ways and customs even when almost everyone else had seemed to abandon them. This has caused some historians and commentators to view her negatively but only because they focus on one narrow aspect rather than taking into context the whole portrait of this grand and remarkable lady who lived a life of service and duty.

She was born Princess Nagako on March 6, 1903 in Tokyo, Azabu district, the daughter of Prince Kuniyoshi Kuni and Chikako Shimazu. Prince Kuni was the head of one of the cadet branches of the Imperial Family, being descended from a past emperor from the thirteenth century. Her mother was of aristocratic background, coming from the family of a prominent daimyo. For little Princess Nagako, her upbringing was typical of the old aristocracy of the time but her destiny was revealed to her earlier than most and so most of her childhood was quite unlike those of other girls. She attended Gakushuin, at that time the Peers’ School, Girls’ Department in Tokyo alongside Princess Masako Nashimoto who would go on to marry the Crown Prince of Korea. She was only eleven years old when the path for her life was chosen for her. On January 14, 1914 HM Empress Sadako invited a number of girls of suitable rank to tea at the Concubines’ Pavilion in the Imperial Palace. Watching through a hole in a screen was Crown Prince Hirohito, who was told to pick one to be his future bride. He chose Princess Nagako and the arrangements were all made that one day they would be married. Although she was his preference, it was certainly not a “love match” as the two were very young, had never met and knew nothing about each other at all. It was all a matter of duty. Happily, it would not remain so.

Even then, there were some grumblings about the Crown Prince making a troublesome choice. Princess Nagako had imperial and noble ancestry but it was not of the highest order most expected and she was not from the Fujiwara clan that most imperial consorts had been from. Several prominent and very powerful people objected to the match and demanded that the Imperial Household Agency call it off but Prince Kuni was just as adamant that no such thing happen, threatening to kill his daughter and then himself if this was done. Thankfully, no such drastic measures were necessary as when things became really heated HM the Taisho Emperor stepped in and endorsed Princess Nagako as his future daughter-in-law and that settled it. After that, to have questioned the match would be to question the divine will of the Emperor, which did not happen. Preparations then went ahead with the Princess spending her time until she was of a proper age to marry being given an intensive training course on how to be a Crown Princess and future Empress. The formal engagement was announced in 1921 and the wedding set for 1923. Everything was done to familiarize the princess with her duties, obligations and the ceremony and protocol of the imperial court. She was, for example, one of the last people alive in Japan who could understand the unique style of language used by the Emperor and inner court in the old days which disappeared after World War II.

However, there was to be no imperial wedding in 1923 as it was in that year that a horrific earthquake struck Tokyo that devastated the city and killed around 10,000 people. The marriage was postponed for a year while all the strength and energy of the nation was funneled into dealing with the natural disaster. For the Princess, her education continued and many forget what an intelligent, cultured and well-rounded lady she was, learning French, studying Chinese and Japanese literature and numerous other diverse subjects, being a talented artist and singer as well as adept at the piano, Japanese harp and violin. During all that time she only met her future husband nine times and the two were never alone but finally the grand occasion came on January 26, 1924 when the two were married. Before the end of the next year, the Crown Princess became Empress consort with the passing of HM Emperor Taisho and the elevation of Crown Prince Hirohito to the Chrysanthemum Throne. This was only shortly after the birth of their first child, HIH Shigeko, Princess Teru earlier in the month. Of course, there were rules to be followed for such an occasion but the Empress was still a more involved mother than most of her predecessors had been and she took the job of motherhood very seriously.

As the Emperor and Empress had been brought together almost as strangers, it was to be expected that, early on, their relationship seemed rather formal and distant. However, it was all a matter of getting to know each other and as they did, they became a very loving couple, greatly attached to each other. The Empress seemed to view her primary occupation as being to shelter and support her husband, to care for him and ensure that he was able to give his best in his own duties and obligations. This, she did very well and the Emperor had no more attentive guardian and caretaker than his Empress for as long as he lived. The devotion the Emperor had for her was displayed only a few years after the marriage. In 1927, 1929 and 1931 the Empress gave birth to three girls in succession and many began to worry if a son and heir would be forthcoming. In 1932 such talk only increased as the Empress suffered a miscarriage and many began to urge the Emperor to take a concubine to ensure the survival of the dynasty. The Meiji Emperor had had several concubines and it was quite common but the Emperor would not hear of it. He was a ’one woman man’ and the Empress was the only one for him and he would have no other. As if to prove the imperial decision correct, in 1933 the Empress gave birth to HIH Crown Prince Akihito, followed by another prince in 1935. In all, they would have seven children, five girls and two boys.

One can only imagine the strain this was on the Imperial Family, having to deal with such issues during such critical years as the early 1930’s which saw the occupation of Manchuria, the restoration of the Empire of Manchukuo and the outbreak of hostilities with China following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Through it all, the Empress was a strong source of comfort and support for her husband and did her part whenever she could, even after the outbreak of the wider war in 1941. She took part in the ceremonies celebrating the surrender of Singapore, the largest British bastion in the Far East and when the war came to Japan the Empress had the children sent to safety but remained by the Emperor’s side in Tokyo, enduring the intense bombing in solidarity with the people. The Empress would later describe this as the worst period of her life, not only because of the bombing and immense human suffering but also because of the pressures, weighing down from all sides on the Emperor and the real worry when the war finally came to an end that he might be taken away and executed. The immense, frenzied changes that took place after the war were also difficult for her to deal with but she never complained. As the monarchy was being re-invented for the new State of Japan, the Empress considered it her duty to support her husband in everything he did and every decision he made.

What finally seems to have been too much was when HIH Crown Prince Akihito decided to get married. The two older daughters had already married and lost their status because of the new post-war laws that downsized the Imperial Family but the Empress seems to have thought that, for the heir to the throne, the traditional way would still be followed. Many of the old aristocracy were upset when the choice of the Crown Prince fell on Michiko Shoda, a commoner with a Catholic education. No one knows what was said behind closed doors but the prevailing sentiment is that the Empress was against such a choice. When it went ahead anyway, all sorts of rumors were spread around of the Empress being cold, distrustful and even spiteful toward Crown Princess Michiko, much of that probably being exaggerated. What is true is that the Crown Princess had one or two nervous breakdowns in the years after her marriage and perhaps the Empress was showing more concern than most people think. Her motives should not be questioned and one could speculate more positively that she had the best of intentions in being reluctant about the Crown Prince marrying a commoner.

After all, consider her own life; she had come from the Imperial Family and aristocracy and yet there were still strenuous objections to her own marriage. She was given years of training for the high honor and privilege of being Empress consort and even then, she knew how difficult the adjustment was for her. Perhaps she had not realized how much attitudes had changed since the time of her marriage, perhaps she wanted to spare the young girl from a life she felt she was not suited for. Finally, there is also the simple fact that the Empress was someone who took tradition and history and the sacred nature of the Imperial Family very, very seriously. When that is the case, as we are seeing with a number of issues today, one can easily and often be accused of being unkind or even hateful simply for holding firm to the traditions and values that were once taken for granted by all. In any event, that was certainly the most controversial period of her life, for most people today anyway, but much of it has probably been over-blown. It is not as though daughters and mothers-in-law have always gotten along famously no matter how high or low born they might be. It is a common story all over the world. On the whole, the family remained happy and the Empress had the joy of becoming a grandmother. She visited Europe and the United States with HM the Emperor and became known as the “Smiling Empress” because of her friendly disposition, but while perfectly genuine, few foreigners knew that it was the sort of positive countenance and pleasant demeanor that was instilled by years of preparation.

To the very end, she was a dutiful and attentive wife and was heartbroken when, on January 7, 1989, His Majesty the Showa Emperor departed this life. Her Majesty was re-titled as Empress-Dowager but her own health had deteriorated so much while she focused all of herself on the Emperor that she was too frail even to attend his funeral and after his death she went into seclusion for the rest of her life. Her Majesty, Empress Dowager Kojun died on June 16, 2000 surrounded by her immediate family, at the age of 97 in the Fukiage Omiya Palace in Tokyo. She was buried near her husband at the Imperial Cemetery on July 25, 2000. Her passing marked the end of an era and a last, living, connection with the old Empire of Japan that had existed since the Meiji Era was lost with her. It was a great sadness but Japan was also fortunate to have had such a remarkable lady for so long. She was a shining example of the best virtues of old Japan and the traditional elite. She lived by an ancient code, was firm and unyielding in her principles and showing no favoritism, was devoted to maintaining what had been handed down. She was a devoted wife and mother, a supportive and dutiful Empress consort, a faithful, strong and tireless daughter of Great Japan.


  1. A little off topic!
    What an elegant Junihitoe, indeed (pic. 1).
    While the 12-robes Junihitoe still is the treasure of the 12th century Japan, the “treasures” of the 20th century are: mini skirt, tank top (US version), transparent, baggy pants, and all sort of ~kini (bi~, mono~, or even no~), how the mighty has fallen.

  2. what a lovely tribute to a beautiful, honorable lady.


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