The Royal Condition

June 10, 1993

The wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito to the commone Masako Owada apparently thrills most Japanese as the wedding of the Prince of Wales to the commoner Diana Spencer delighted most Britons in 1981. Yet the more noticed comparison is the esteem of the monarchy in Japan against its growing disrepute in Britain. Not to mention the apparent happiness of the Japanese newlyweds contrasted to the demonstrated unhappiness of their jaded British counterparts.

All monarchy is myth, the apparent government in the notion of Walter Bagehot rather than the real government. All monarchy is ultimately illegitimate, resting on usurpation, as Thomas Paine convinced Americans in 1776. The coup, insurrection or invasion may have taken place in the 1920s in Iran, or the 11th Century in Britain, or in the mists of Dark Ages in Japan. But usurpation there was.

Monarchies are used to provide national unity, respect and stability. Such frail substitutes have been invented as the European titular presidency or men on horseback. The British monarchy and accompanying fol-de-rol have long been used not to prevent change but to render change acceptable by lightly disguising it.

When kings ruled by divine right (monopoly of arms), popularity was irrelevant. The modern British monarchy dates from the long reign of Victoria, who progressively lost power while gaining respect and affection. In the "conservative" era which bears her name, Britain was the most radical power on earth, pushing the industrial revolution to the farthest reaches of the Third World. Today, while monarchy rides high in Japan after its near-destruction in 1945 and is seen as reactionary, Japan is the revolutionary power. Where even Victorian rail and steam did not reach, Japanese lap-tops, CDs and VCRs are transforming life.

The Japanese royal wedding comes when Japanese monarchy appears to be riding high and British monarchy low; when Japan is fulfilling economically its imperial destiny and Britain is subsiding into a corner of Europe. Yet in quality of life, not pounds and yen, a Briton with a job is probably more content than a Japanese with a job.

The end of Britain's monarchy is at least thinkable today while the end of Japan's is not, which probably means only that Britain is one generation ahead. Naruhito and Masako are seen as harbingers of modernization, which might remove the institution's mystique and render it vulnerable. Japanese society still based on a respect and deference all but vanished in Britain.

To Americans, who make do with such substitutes as First Ladies, loony tycoons and soap opera queens, all this is exotic, even somewhat attractive. To which, one can only add (though it was omitted from the politically corrected Japanese ceremony yesterday): Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! And God bless the Prince of Wales.

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