Japan from the inside out

Shimojo Masao (9): Tenno or Ilwang?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 25, 2010

THE SOUTH KOREANS use the term ilwang (日王, or Japanese king), to refer to the Japanese Tenno, or emperor. But in the Confucian cultural sphere, the political standing of a king and the Tenno were entirely different. That’s because the term tenno also is used to designate an emperor. It is not the same as a king, which implies the existence of a subservient nobility. Why is it that South Koreans insist on calling the Tenno, which is nothing more than a historical proper noun, an ilwang, thereby turning an emperor into a king?

The South Korean explanation is that in the Confucian cultural sphere, the terms used for emperor, including tenno, are limited to Chinese historical dynasties that were suzerains. Using that word to denote the Japanese Tenno would place South Korea in the position of a Japanese vassal state.

It is a historical fact, however, that the situation in Japan was identical to that of the Chinese dynasties. The “shogun in charge of conquering barbarian territories” established a military government of the samurai class, known as the bakufu, after receiving the sanction of the Tenno. It used the Tenno’s era name as the symbol of an independent state. A superior-subordinate relationship was maintained between the shogun and the nobility, or daimyo. The relationship between the Tenno and the shogun was a system of governance that closely resembled the vassal system in which the Chinese dynasties made vassals of the nobility from the surrounding states. During the Edo period, governance was established as a system with the Shogunate and feudal domains.

Viewed from this historical perspective, there were two empires in the Confucian cultural sphere–China and Japan—and two people who were tenshi (天子, i.e., emperor, or the child of heaven). Located between China on the continent and the Japanese archipelago, the Korean Peninsula was historically subject to the geopolitical influence of those two states.

However, the Korean Peninsula, which had long been in a subordinate position to the Chinese dynasty, was annexed by Japan in August 1910. The peninsula was liberated from Japanese rule with the latter’s defeat in the Second World War. A movement arose in post-liberation South Korea to restore the historical conditions of the past, and that led to the emergence of a historical awareness that pressed for a settlement of past issues. Because South Korea had historically looked up to China as the suzerain, they viewed Japan has having been in the position of nobility–identical to the position of the peninsula. Therefore, for South Koreans to refer to the Japanese Tenno with that term would be tantamount to an admission they were still under Japanese rule, which would wound their self-respect.

The unique historical viewpoint of the Korean Peninsula, which holds that “this is how the history of the past should be”, has had a not-insubstantial impact on recent historical issues between Japan and South Korea, and South Korea and China. In South Korea, a contemporary historical aesthesis is used to evaluate history. That’s because they seek a settlement of the history of the past based on a historical viewpoint derived from that evaluation.

Joseon achieved “absolute independence as a self-governing nation” as the result of the 1894 war between Japan and China. That meant Japan, which was the victor in that war, was compelled to recognize the independence of Joseon, for which the Qing Dynasty had been the suzerain. Therefore, in accordance with the tradition of the states of the Confucian cultural sphere, Joseon reinstituted the Greater Korean Empire in 1896, installed Gojong as the emperor, and established an era name. That’s why, in South Korea, the descendents of Emperor Gojong of the Greater Korean Empire are known as “imperial descendants”.

In recent years, there have been discussions between Japan and South Korea about a possible visit by the Japanese Tenno to the latter country. If there were an opportunity for the Tenno to meet with Gojong’s descendents during such a visit, and the South Korean historical view of the Tenno as the ilwang remained intact, would the mass media in that country report that the “imperial descendants” had met with the “Japanese king”?

History should not be cavalierly rewritten from the arbitrary interpretation of later generations. One obstacle when considering the establishment of an East Asian entity is a barren historical viewpoint based on a contemporary aesthesis that would go so far as to recreate the history of the past in conformity with present attitudes.

– Shimojo Masao

One Response to “Shimojo Masao (9): Tenno or Ilwang?”

  1. Shiro Ishii said

    The assumptions based on this or that interpretation of past and present “Confucian cultural spheres” are irrelevant. Now, today, Japan is not an empire. Japan’s monarch is of exactly the same constitutional nature as England’s. To call Akihito “King of Japan” in English would, therefore, simply be at variance with leftover custom, not with veracity. Personally, I refer to the “Japanese monarch”, since “emperor” is archaic and meaningless, and “tenno” is unknown in English.
    If people using the Korean language choose similarly to use a term parallel to what they would use for Elizabeth II, that is certainly their business, and to arguments based on Japanocentric interpretations of history, I can only appeal to the judgement rendered upon them by history in 1945.

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