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Badges of Honor, Discord

Japan's imperial awards, which often go to bureaucrats, point up its rigid, elitist ways and are in need of new selection criteria, critics say.


TOKYO — One's called the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Flowers. Another is the meticulously described Order of the Sacred Treasures, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon. Then there's the oddly poetic Order of the Precious Crown, Ripple, evoking a hint of low-end wine.

The names may be reminiscent of a Monty Python skit, but the tributes are among the most prestigious that Japanese citizens can receive for their lifelong contributions to the nation.

In fact, in 1971, a low-ranking government worker nominated for the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Medal, felt so inadequate at being recognized that he committed suicide a week before the ceremony.

"I'm not qualified for the order," he wrote in his final note. "His majesty would look at the list [and see how unworthy I am]."

On Monday, about 9,000 people, living and dead, will be honored by the emperor. Bestowed with great pomp and circumstance, the awards are meant to recognize the great achievements of the nation's very best native sons and daughters and a handful of famous foreigners. But in the eyes of some, they're also the epitome of everything that's wrong with Japan.

"This system is really harmful," said Kei Mizusawa, author of the book "The Decoration System Is Ruining Japan." "Honoring people based on their titles rather than what they actually accomplished is a major impediment to real reform in Japan."

Japan started giving the awards in the 1870s in a bid to shake off feudalism, hoping that the honoring of elites would inspire the masses. The system--inspired by the French Legion of Honor and the British tradition of knighting, and far stuffier than the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom--borrowed elements from several European countries. The winners were initially all chosen from Japanese government and military circles.

After World War II, U.S. occupation forces put the kibosh on issuing these trinkets of tribute, given their close association with war criminals and imperial military traditions. Japanese conservatives spent the next 19 years trying to bring the tribute system back, finally succeeding in 1964 after a concession that civilians would be eligible as well.

Over the years, the number of winners has ballooned to 20,000 annually, compared with at least 5,000 in France, Britain's 3,000 and several hundred for the Medal of Freedom, raising concern about award inflation.

And although other nations have modernized and popularized their national award systems--Britain honored the Beatles as early as 1965, reasoning that the Fab Four did more for the country's image than a bevy of bureaucrats--Japan has stuck to its rigid, elitist ways.

The insular selection criteria have on occasion left the nation embarrassed, as when global prizes are awarded to Japanese who haven't been recognized in their own country. Most recently, the government's Decoration Bureau, charged with overseeing the program, rushed to honor author Kenzaburo Oe last year after he received the Nobel Prize in literature--in 1994. He turned the government down.

Today, nearly three-quarters of the public thinks that the award criteria are overdue for reform, according to a poll released in January by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. But change in Japan tends to be slow, especially when it involves the imperial system, making a significant departure unlikely any time soon.

One major problem in the eyes of experts and the public is that 90% of the top honors go to bureaucrats.

Never mind that ministry officials, who are responsible for selecting the winners, have been embroiled in a parade of scandals over the past decade and have badly fumbled the nation's economic, social and industrial policies. Precedent and tradition dictate that the system rumble on.

"I'm totally against all these honors going to government officials," said Hideaki Nagasawa, a 40-year-old office worker in the food industry. "Basically, these bureaucrats just end up awarding those inside their own circle."

Another concern is the way winners are chosen. In most categories, applicants must be 70 or older and have held a top position for several years. Some say this rewards archaic thinking, even as it encourages senior officials to roost in important posts, blocking innovation and younger colleagues' promotions.

Under the system, which has changed little in 125 years, women are ineligible for the highest awards. Instead, they're relegated to a lower "women only" category with special bright yellow ribbons, presumably more feminine-looking.

"In Japan's so-called gender-equal society, people should be recognized for their achievements, no matter their sex," said Kimiko Yagi, professor of gender issues at Josai International University. "The system is ridiculous."

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