The atmosphere of the ritual is serious, of course, but the flood of nostalgia it unleashes often washes away the sins of the past. Sepia-toned television imagery allows the subjects to attribute any shortcomings of the deceased to bad counsel or accidents of history. The death of any of these god-like figures becomes an opportunity for mere mortals to reflect upon the meaning of life, while allowing the machinery of the state to show power devolving to the mourning heirs in the most natural and reverent manner possible.

The recent death of Princess Kikuko of Japan at the age of 92 provides these same opportunities to the royal court of Japan. However, her death also presents an opportunity for a more forthcoming discussion of the Japanese Imperial family’s involvement in the prosecution of Japan’s colonial wars and the post war period.

From an occidental point of view, the death of the Princess was a mere footnote; nothing like the media deluge that would have accompanied the death of the Queen Mum of England, for example. Although the Japanese royal family doesn’t generate the same interest in this country as the House of Windsor, it can certainly be argued that the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan is of equal, if not greater importance, to political events of the twentieth century.

So why should westerners pay attention to the death of this somewhat obscure Asian royal?

From her entry into the Japanese Imperial family as the bride of Emperor Hirohito’s youngest brother, Prince Takamatsu, Princess Kikuko was different. From her fondness for the latest western “flapper” fashions as a newlywed to her reputation for angry outbursts, Princess Kikuko was not a model of feminine subservience. Her recent decision to publish diaries written during the height of Japanese expansionism by her late husband Prince Takamatsu was perhaps one of her boldest decisions.

Publication of these diaries collectively called "Takamatsunomiya Nikki" (Prince Takamatsu Diary) has added significantly to the historical understanding of the period, which is important to international relations in the region. Even now, the traumatic events of the Japanese colonial wars are a source of great division in Asia. Anger over the Japanese occupation and the practice of forcing women to become “comfort women” (a euphemism for sex slaves) is still stoked to great effect in N. Korea, for example. As China rises as an international power, many Chinese feel that Japan has yet to express sufficient remorse for horrific events such as the Rape of Nanking.

“The Yamato Dynasty, The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family” by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave gives us an overview of the Japanese Imperial family in the twentieth century that sheds new light on the role of the royal family. If it had not been for Princess Kikuko’s decision to publish her diaries, a piece of the puzzle would have been missing.

Since Prince Takamatsu wasn’t next in line to the throne, he viewed himself as marginal. Describing his chief responsibility as, “…to exist and do nothing bad,” Takamatsu’s perspective gives us a rare look inside the machinery of the royal court. Even while Japanese soldiers were worshipping the Emperor as a virtual deity, Takamatsu took part in the real politic of the mid-thirties, which assured a symbiotic relationship between the Imperial family and the proverbial “evil counselors.” This allowed the courtiers and the military to carry out their xenophobic project of looting and pillaging their Asian neighbors for the greater glory of the Emperor.

In “The Yamamoto Dynasty,” the Seagraves describe Takmatsu’s diaries as the revelations of, “…a man deeply pained by the absurdities of Japanese society and the birdcage role of the Imperial family.”

The book goes on to expose the fact that although much of the war booty accumulated by the Japanese army during World War II, was officially unaccounted for at the end of the war, it did, nevertheless, find its way back into the Japanese economy. Perhaps the most controversial, but logical thesis in the book is that the symbiosis between the Imperial family and their inner circle widened after the war to include the Zaibatsu industrial families and also American interests represented by General Douglas MacArthur, the House of Morgan and the nascent Central Intelligence Agency.

The evidence presented suggests that this new group conspired to disperse war booty and shield assets of the Imperial family in order create a new Japanese-American hegemony in the East, to guarantee a speedy war reconstruction effort and also to erect a bulwark against the rising tide of communism.

The diaries of Prince Takamatsu which Princess Kikuko revealed to the world show us a view from within the gilded cage of how the human symbol of the Yamamoto dynasty was manipulated to create unquestioning, patriotic and religious support for a campaign of total war.

In addition to her philanthropic work on behalf of cancer research, the Princess will also be remembered for including herself in a recent political debate over the future of the throne, According to her Associated Press obituary, “In 2002, after Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako had a daughter, Kikuko was the first royal to publicly call for changes to a postwar law that allows only male heirs to assume the Chrysanthemum Throne.”

Indeed, the mourning period being observed for the Princess in advance of her Dec. 26 funeral seems to be filled with the family drama over whether Aiko, the three-year-old daughter of the Crown Prince will become the next Emperor.

How the Japanese choose to mourn the Princess could be an indication of what the future holds for the land of the Rising Sun. Will there be a greater sense of openness about the events of the past and the way they are remembered in Japan, or will a new generation of royals inhabit the same gilded cage of its’ forebears? This question is not as academic as it might seem at first blush.

The Japanese-American political economist Francis Fukuyama famously predicted at the end of the euphoric nineties that we may find ourselves at the end of history. Before we rush to embrace the notion of universal liberal democracy, however, some reflection of how we came to this point might be in order.
While the cold war may be over, and communism may be in the dustbin of history, what about the problems of extreme nationalism and neo-fascism? Something to think about as the U.S. flexes its muscles around the world and Japan ponders a return to militarism. Not all of the ghosts of the past have been exorcised. The occasion of Princess Kikuko’s passing may represent a time to ponder this.
Generally, when someone in their nineties passes away, the quality of mourning is markedly different from that which accompanies a youthful person’s demise. This is also true of royalty. However, when an elderly royal dies, the death becomes an occasion for the machinery of the state to stage an elaborate funeral which serves the purpose of reinforcing the power of the State. The recent funeral of Ronald Reagan is a good example of this tendency.