Emperor Hirohito’s Coronation (1928) gift set, part 3

Just a glance at the items included in this set will show that they are dirty. This soiled appearance is due to the material, which is an unglazed pottery, unadorned with color or design (apart from the inscriptions, which are uncolored). Why is this so? Why wouldn’t items in a gift set from the Imperial Household Agency be beautifully designed and elaborately decorated? The answer needs a knowledge of Shinto and State Shintoism.

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan. It has existed for a long time (origins unclear), but in the war years (1932 to 1945) it was used as more than a religion; it was utilized to convey a powerful connection between the Emperor and the gods, and this connection justified the nation going to war under his guidance.

This is usually called State Shintoism, and it differs from the actual religion in ideology. The Meiji Emperor (1868-1912) did not have a strong connection to Shinto, and indeed many politicians shied away from making Shinto an organ of the state. ( See Carol Gluck’s Japan’s Modern Myths for a better explanation.) But gradually the connection became stronger as many politicians, bureaucrats, and other people of power saw how useful it was.

Let’s take a look at a sake cup from a Shinto shrine:

Compare the style with the items from the gift set. Both unglazed, rough pottery. Both have an uncolored, unobtrusive design. (This cup has an Imperial mum.) From various sources I have heard that these cups were used once (during a ceremony or festival) and then dashed to the ground, so they were not meant to be sturdy or even prized.

Shinto shrines are very simple. Unlike the Buddhist temples, they have no gold decoration, no garish trim on the eaves, no elaborate halls. In fact, if you visit a shrine, you may be surprised by how little there is. In one shrine by my home, there is a stone gate (鳥居 torii) and two stone lions, and three small wooden buildings where you can ring a bell and put in a few coins. (They are all too small to enter.) Shinto prides itself on simplicity. And shrine cups are indeed simple.

So back to the gift set. The connection between the Imperial Household and Shinto is very strong here, and no Japanese would fail to notice it. Emperor Hirohito was often viewed as the highest priest of the religion (something no one thought of the Meiji Emperor) and the only one who could commune directly with the gods. This power was insisted upon throughout the war years and used as a tool to convince the people that they were fighting a Holy War.

The unglazed pottery has a tendency to attract dirt. I am not sure how these should be cleaned or even if they should be cleaned. Items like these, though, were probably never used, nor was there any indication that they should have been used. (EXCEPTION: The interior of the flask is glazed. Perhaps it was meant to be used…)

A last note concerns the tray. It also is in the Shinto style. Very simple, plain wood. Not heavily lacquered. There is a space in the center, too, but this was done on purpose.

Finally, to conclude, we must take a look at the box lid. The entire set came in a large paulonia wood box, and Mr. Tanigaki wrote a message on the lid.

Although the inscription was written in a formal tone, my translation is a bit informal.

‘On the occasion of His Holy Majesty ascending to the throne, a dinner was held, and Unworthy I was permitted to attend. This was a gift presented that day, and my family will treasure it forever. Showa 3 [1928] November 16th. Tanigaki Kazujiro.’

Unfortunately, his family did not treasure it as much as he did. On the other hand, if they had, I could never have seen this wonderful set.

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