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12 November: Sun Yat-sen and Akihito

For Asia, 12 November has been an auspicious day.  In China, a future leading reformer was born; in Japan, an emperor was installed.  Ironically, the first had a role in ensuring the second.

In 1866, Sun Yat-sen was born during what was then the Qing (in the West, the Manchu) dynasty of China.  As a young man Yat-sen (of his many names, this one will be used) was educated first in Hawaii, then in Hong Kong under missionary hospital doctors, picking up fluent English.  Soon after he was licensed to practice medicine and was baptized a Christian, he fell into revolutionary movements and was exiled in 1895.  While living in Japan he was active in arming the Philippine nationalists against the Americans.  Traveling extensively in Europe, Asia and the Americas to raise money for one failed revolt after another from 1900 to 1907, another failed revolt had him exiled to Japan once again.  The successful 1911 Wuchang uprising caught him by surprise and still in America.  He had returned to China by the end of the year.  Elected the provisional president of a Chinese republic, he took office 1 January 1912.  But he was not president of a great country, but a lot of territory with an economy in a shambles, a government without any enforcement power, and several splintered factions.  While he was popular enough to stay in power, stepping down and up again several times, his influence over most of China’s affairs was limited to the power of the warlords who backed him, and they changed with the seasons.  At his death in 1925 China had got rid of the empire, but not of its internal issues.

On 12 November 1990, Japan’s Emperor Akihito was enthroned.  As the 125th (traditionally) emperor, he succeeded when his father the Showa emperor Hirohito died in 1989.  As a teenager in 1945, Akihito received a much-ignored letter from his father, which explained why the emperor issued his Imperial Rescript withdrawing his support for the war.  The reasons the Showa cited were that they dynasty had to survive even if he did not, and the soul of Japan, then embodied in the Imperial Objects, could not fall into non-Japanese hands. Though likely too young to understand the implications, it would appear to Japan watchers that Akihito took his father’s implied admonition to heart: the first duty of the emperor is to serve the throne and the dynasty.  As the first emperor in a dynasty over two millennium old who did not accept living divine status, his service, indeed his life, is as the symbol of modern Japan and little else.

While Sun Yat-sen died years before Akihito was born, the chaos that China’s civil wars fueled from 1911 onward made China a tempting target for Japan.  While the United States always had a soft spot for China, its sympathies for Japan have waxed and waned over the past century.  When Japan went to war with China starting in 1932 (technically with Manchuria, which was legally separate at the time) it was because Yat-sen’s constant revolution weakened China so severely that Japan merely took the opportunity for expansion.  After a generation of war, America and China stood over the wreckage of Japan, yet preserved the monarchy.