When Amaterasu didn’t meet Brutus – It Happened Today, February 11, 2017
It is hard to believe that, as late as Edward Coke’s time, it was credible in England to assert that the monarchy was originally founded by Brutus of Troy. (Not et tu Brutus. Another guy.) And yet in Japan it was believed well into the 20th century that their monarchy was founded in the 7th century BC, specifically on February 11 of 660 BC, by Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Also of the storm god Susanoo, by the way. I mean, why stop at one?
Now it may well be that the Emperorship was in some way established by a guy named Jimmu or something of the sort in or around 660 B.C. Possibly he set up shop in Yamato on February 11, now celebrated as "National Foundation Day" in Japan. After all, there was a historical figure at the centre of the Arthurian legend, a leader of the Romanized Britons after the legions left, despite later embellishments ranging from the inspiring to the downright silly. And Jimmu too may well have been a real person, or modeled on one.
Brutus of Troy? Not so much. I mean, maybe there was a Trojan called Brutus and maybe he even was descended from Aeneas. But however he got into a 9th century Historia Britonum it was not by ship west from Troy, out through the Pillars of Hercules and then north to glory. Nor was "Britain" named for "Brutus". (Nor, I submit, did Aeneas flee to Italy after the sack of Troy and have a son Ascanius who founded Alba Longa. Nor was Brutus descended from Noah’s son Ham. And so on.)
Perhaps you think it childish of me to make sport of these legends. But I do so in order to draw attention to a crucial difference between the governments, constitutions and political cultures of England and Japan. And I do it while acknowledging that the government of Japan seems in many ways to have enjoyed a more organic and harmonious relationship to its citizens than elsewhere.
The thing is, even if people believed the more fanciful tales about Brutus, and gave them some minor weight in legitimizing monarchy in Britain in principle, nobody ever sought to bolster their claim to kingship, or for sweeping powers for the king, by pointing to Brutus. English kings, going back long before Canute, established their claim to the throne by governing well. And governing tyrannically was never justified by the origins of the monarchy even if people sometimes got away with it for a while. At bottom, Brutus was just a piece of colourful embroidery.
Jimmu was not. Or rather, Amaterasu was not. The Japanese Emperor really did claim divinity, via Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi, supposedly Jimmu’s great grandfather, and a whole lot of his people believed it. Not all, of course. But those who did not kept their mouths shut or someone shut them permanently for them. And because the Emperor was a living god, to the point that when after defeat in 1945 they actually saw the rather unimpressive figure of Hirohito in his ill-fitting suits (because tailors were not permitted to touch a living god even to measure him) and heard his all-too-human voice they were profoundly shocked.
It sounds as silly as Brutus of Troy. But this claim, which incidentally could not be made in a Christian society, made genuine self-government impossible. Canute rebuked courtiers for telling him he was such a favourite of God that he could command the waves. Japanese Emperors would have rebuked and possibly executed courtiers for telling him he was not himself a God. And it matters.
It’s no accident that a regime headed by a living god could launch World War II even though it was neither morally justified nor practically sensible. Who’s going to tell a divinity he’s a belligerent nitwit?