Americans can be excused if we do not understand why a constitutional democracy would have a royal head of state. But in times of dire need, people who were raised in a monarchy know why they want one.
Japan’s Emperor Akihito provided the latest lesson on the role of a modern sovereign when he appeared on television, for the first time, to rally his stricken people in a pre-recorded speech Wednesday.
Akihito offered a sympathetic but hopeful message, saying, “I truly hope the victims of the disaster never give up hope, take care of themselves, and live strong for tomorrow.” He also exhorted his citizens “to remember everyone who has been affected by the devastation, not only today but for a long time afterwards — and help with the recovery.”
When the needs are so great, the problems are so large, why does it matter whether a monarch who controls no government resources says anything at all?
The subject drew a lot of attention recently, due to the award-winning film “The King’s Speech.” Colin Firth as Britain’s King George VI expresses frustration and doubt over a king’s place in a democracy. “If I am to be King...where is my power? May I form a Government, levy a tax or declare a war? No! Yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the Nation believes when I speak, I speak for them.” The film centered on that king’s particular challenges, and the way in which they translated into words that inspired the British people.
The real-life George VI and his family served as a rallying point for Britain’s dogged resistance throughout the London blitz. Along with the more microphone-loving Winston Churchill, the royal family earned much credit for keeping their country fighting until America’s belated entry to the war finally offered the prospect of relief and eventual victory.
Other European royals were equally important to their people during World War II. King Christian X of Denmark remained in his capital throughout the Nazi occupation, an important symbol of resistance. While he studiously ignored salutes from German officers, his subjects were busy spiriting virtually the entire Jewish population of the country to safety in neutral Sweden under the occupiers’ noses. His government consistently refused to make laws abridging Danish Jews’ civil rights. The king’s brother, King Haakon VII of Norway, chose to go into exile rather than accept a Nazi puppet regime.
During the war, monarchs not only made important symbols, but sometimes actively made important choices as well. King Leopold III of Belgium surrendered to the Nazis against his government’s recommendation. He believed the Allied situation to be hopeless and sought to spare his people suffering in a lost cause. While his government was in exile, Leopold spent the war as a German prisoner.
A more recent example comes from Spain. In 1981, the recently crowned King Juan Carlos I of Spain faced down a coup attempt by the late dictator Francisco Franco's supporters, who had counted on the king’s support, or at least his silent acquiescence.
Instead, Juan Carlos appeared on television in uniform and denounced the insurgents. He declared, “The crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate, in any form, actions or attitudes attempting to interrupt the democratic process.”
The speech rallied the military to his side, effectively ending the last attempted coup in Western European history thus far. Juan Carlos remains a popular and outspoken monarch today, having more recently taken a hard line against Venezuela's power hungry Hugo Chavez.
As I wrote in Monday’s post, Japan’s then-emperor Hirohito spoke directly to his people, many of whom had never heard his voice before, to announce the country’s surrender at the end of World War II. He asked Japanese citizens not to fight on in his name, but rather to “suffer the insufferable” and accept surrender in order to “pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come.”
Akihito, who is Hirohito's son, was the first emperor to take the throne under the existing constitution, as a man rather than as a god. He is nevertheless a deeply respected figure in Japan. He brought comfort to the victims of Kobe’s 1995 earthquake with a royal visit. If the 77-year-old monarch’s health permits, I imagine he will eventually tour the hard-hit areas of northeast Japan following this month’s disasters, as well.
We Americans read about other nations’ royalty in the tabloids, as we read about athletes and musicians. But we are removed from them. We don't embody our nation in a specific family or individual. The closest thing to royalty we have might actually be our Constitution, a written document that is seen as capturing enduring principles for which our nation stands — even though we often disagree on exactly what those principles are and what they mean in modern life. We look to the Supreme Court to arbitrate those disagreements, but we certainly don't look on Supreme Court justices as royalty. And a document, even such an important one, lacks a human being’s nuances, flaws and compassion alike.
So we may not completely understand the role of royals in democratic governments. That does not mean we can’t appreciate it. We have seen many times how monarchs can inspire their people, raise morale and even change history, all without any real political power at all. Royals are at their best when suffering is greatest and they provide whatever relief they can.
Japan’s suffering is the greatest it has seen in a very long time. I hope their emperor can help the Japanese through these trials.