The Emperor is an organ of the state

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Jim Unger sent me this mystifying note (7/25/20):

The other day, my wife called my attention to the fact that the ‘organ theory of the emperor’ (Tennō kikan setsu), for which Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948) was prosecuted in the 1930s, is written 天皇機関説.  This is odd since ‘organ’ in the medical sense (the apparent source of Minobe’s metaphor) is currently written 器官 whereas 機関 is now pretty much ‘engine’.  Since it is inconceivable that generations of historians writing in English have simply been perpetuating a mistranslation, it appears that either 器官 is a later coinage or that 機関 narrowed in meaning sometime later, or both.  I am not particularly interested in untangling this mess, but it might be worth studying because it seems to be a case of one or more Sino-Japanese compounds undergoing semantic change within Japanese, which, of course, ought not happen if every kanji were a logogram of fixed meaning.  Do both these words occur in Chinese?  If so, have they ever overlapped in meaning in Chinese?  Is one or the other a 19th or 20th century neologism?

Now, let me tell you, that really sent me on a merry goose chase.  What did it mean when people said "The Emperor is an organ of the state" in Japanese, and what does it mean when people say it in English?

Before pursuing the Japanese historical sources of the controversy, for the record 器官 and 機関 are both pronounced kikan in Japanese.  The former is generally considered to mean "organ; instrument", while the latter is considered to mean "engine; machine; mechanism; body organ; organization, institute, agency, authority, establishment; facility".  In Mandarin, the former is pronounced qìguān and is held to mean "organ; apparatus", while the latter (機關) is pronounced jīguān and is held to mean "organ; body; office; mechanism; stratagem; intrigue; scheme; gear".

機關, with the meaning of "mechanism", is found already in the Suí shū 隋書 (Book of Sui [636 AD]).  It also had the meaning of "stratagem; scheme; intrigue") in premodern times.  器官, on the other hand, seems to be a new term from the beginning of the 20th century (Xīn Ěryǎ 新爾雅 [New Erya] 1903 is the first occurrence I can readily find) used in biology — anatomy, physiology.

The Sinitic morpheme written with the elusive character jī 機 is treated at great length in the items listed under "Selected readings" below.

Here are some relevant accounts for the Tennō kikan setsu 天皇機関説 ("organ theory of the emperor"):

1.

The theory of the Emperor as an organ of government (the theory of the nation state as a juridical body) that the Emperor is an organ of the state possessing no authority over and above the state, who exercised power only as the highest organ of the state was widely accepted as an academic construct legally underpinning the Meiji Constitution system. At a plenary session of the House of Peers on 18 February 1935 (Showa 10), however, KIKUCHI Takeo vehemently attached [sic –> attacked] the theory, criticizing the works of constitutional scholar MINOBE Tatsukichi and others. In response, MINOBE, who was also a member of the House of Peers, made a strong "personal defense" of the theory at the plenary session one week later, on 25 February 1935. Sensing opportunity, nationalist groups and others pounced on the issue and started a campaign to discredit the "Emperor as an Organ of Government Theory". The movement to denounce the theory grew in intensity when the Seiyukai*, which wanted to overturn the Cabinet, was joined by large segments of the military and local government groups.

[*The Rikken Seiyūkai (立憲政友会, Constitutional Association of Political Friendship) was one of the main political parties in the pre-war Empire of Japan. It was also known simply as the "Seiyūkai".  (Source)]

"Dispute over 'Emperor as an Organ of Government Theory'", Modern Japan in Archives

2.

In 1912, Minobe published a work on constitutional interpretation, which came to be known as the “emperor organ theory”. Per Minobe, the “State”, or kokutai was supreme, and even the emperor was only an “organ of the State” as defined through the constitutional structure, rather than a sacred power beyond the state itself. Minobe used the metaphor of the head of the human body to describe the role of the emperor. This thesis was influenced by the work of German legal philosopher Georg Jellinek, whose work, Allgemeine Staatslehre (General Theory of the State) was published in 1900, and also by the British concept of a constitutional monarchy. Minobe warned that the emperor’s right of supreme command over the military needed to be carefully limited by the Diet of Japan if Japan were not to end up with a dual government in which the military would become completely independent and above the rule of law and unaccountable to civilian authority.

(Source)

It's interesting to note that Minobe was the son of a doctor of Chinese medicine.

 

Selected readings



12 Comments »

  1. Glenn Tiffert said,

    July 29, 2020 @ 12:50 pm

    Miller, Frank Owen. (1965). Minobe Tatsukichi – Interpreter Of Constitutionalism in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    This covers the controversy in some detail. Many regard the dispute as a critical inflection point in the erosion of Taisho democracy.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2020 @ 6:28 pm

    From Nathan Hopson:

    I hadn't thought of that. Very interesting.

    機関 maps on to quite a lot of different words in European languages, including "system," "organization," and "institution" (機構 kikō). This is by no means an expert opinion, as I'm only passingly familiar with Minobe's theory, which derived from C19 Prussian ideas about the juristische Staatsperson, but as I understand, it, he meant 機関 in that last sense of 機構. In other words, if the state was a juridical person, the emperor was a subordinate structure or institution therein — hence the miffed rightists.

    Depending on one's point of view, then, "organ" could be quite a clever translation, encompassing both the sense of an institution and a subordinate structure within a totality — whether of an organism or a state, and especially because the state was metaphorically an organism.

    Just a thought

  3. Jim Breen said,

    July 29, 2020 @ 7:45 pm

    As Nathan Hopson correctly points out, 機関/きかん has a number of meanings. To quote from the Kenkyusha 新和英大辞典第5版: (1) 〔エンジン〕 an engine; (機械) a machine. (2) 〔組織〕 a system; an organization; an institution; facilities; 〔機構〕 machinery; a structure; a body; an organ. The スーパー大辞林 J-J dictionary has two more senses covering things like systems and facilities. In the circumstances using "organ" when translating 天皇機関説 is not too bad at all.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2020 @ 7:46 pm

    By sheer coincidence, among the thousands of entries in the dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS) that I've been working on with Zhu Qingzhi for the last two decades, today I happened upon this funny one that gives a good idea of the background of 機關, in early medieval China:

    zhuǎnguān轉關
    【名】①機關。《晉書·桓玄傳》:“性好畋遊,以體大不堪乘馬,又作徘徊輿,施轉關,令回動無滯。”

    n. ①Mechanism, gear. Book of Jin, “Biography of Huan Xuan”, “By nature Huan Xuan was fond of travelling. However, as he had a large body, he could not ride horses. Therefore he made a carriage with a special mechanism that ensured smooth mobility.”

  5. Chris Button said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 7:50 am

    Interesting topic, to which I can add little.

    I am curious as to why this was singled out though:

    but it might be worth studying because it seems to be a case of one or more Sino-Japanese compounds undergoing semantic change within Japanese, which, of course, ought not happen if every kanji were a logogram of fixed meaning.

    That naturally extends to many individual characters as well. They represent living languages after all. Not to mention (presumably) independent coinages using the same characters. 手紙 certainly isn't used the same way in Japanese and Chinese!

  6. Michael Watts said,

    July 30, 2020 @ 6:08 pm

    This is odd since ‘organ’ in the medical sense (the apparent source of Minobe’s metaphor) is currently written 器官 whereas 機関 is now pretty much ‘engine’. Since it is inconceivable that generations of historians writing in English have simply been perpetuating a mistranslation, it appears that either 器官 is a later coinage or that 機関 narrowed in meaning sometime later, or both.

    What did it mean when people said "The Emperor is an organ of the state" in Japanese, and what does it mean when people say it in English?

    The rest of the post doesn't actually address what it means to call something "an organ of the state" in English, but I was surprised by Jim Unger's comment specifically because it would never occur to me that the phrase "an organ of the state" referred to an organ in the medical sense. It's a common English phrase referring to any entity that is part of the state. Compare Merriam-Webster's sense 3 of "organ" ( https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/organ ):

    a subordinate group or organization that performs specialized functions

    the various organs of government

    The example phrase even specifically refers to organs of the state!

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 4:43 am

    The OED definition seems worth quoting here :

    III. A means, instrument, or device.
    a. A means of action or operation, an instrument; (now) esp. a person, body of people, or thing by which some purpose is carried out or some function is performed.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 7:58 am

    When I was looking into the names of international organisations in Mongolian, I was interested to discover that 機関 in Japanese usage is mostly reserved for specialised agencies of the United Nations while 機構 is used for other kinds of international organisations. Chinese tends to use 組織 for both.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 8:01 am

    And, of course, the term 'organ' in the sense of 'a newspaper or broadcasting station produced by a particular organization and giving only the opinions of that organization' is rendered as 機関紙 (literally 'organ paper') in Japanese.

  10. David C. said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 8:48 am

    Much of modern-day vocabulary in Chinese is owed to Japanese coinage – either taking an existing Chinese word and giving it new meaning, or taking Chinese word building blocks and creating a new compound. Without doing more research to see whether the modern meaning emerged independently in Chinese, this is likely an example of the former, using the word for mechanism and applying in an political and administrative context.

    機關 (jī guān) has emerged to refer mainly to the executive departments of the State. This is true both of mainland China and Taiwan where the term is commonly used in the set phrase 行政機關 (executive branch). Using 組織 avoids implications of sovereignty when speaking of international organizations. 機關 vs. 機構 can be likened to the distinction between a ministry/department and an agency (see here for the definitions in Taiwan law).

  11. David C. said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 8:58 am

    https://www.lawbank.com.tw/treatise/lawrela.aspx?lsid=FL030506&ldate=20100203&lno=3,4,7,11,21,32

  12. william holmes said,

    July 31, 2020 @ 10:40 am

    At the risk of throwing a wrench into the machine, I recall reading that Chairman Mao found the word 机关枪 (machine gun) somehow amusing.

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