Strange Politics: The Emperor of Japan

Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, who is set to take the throne as Emperor on Tuesday. Image by Michel Temer.

The current Emperor of Japan, who is 85 years old and has reigned since 1989, is set to abdicate the throne on April 30 in favor of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. On his accession, the crown prince will become the 126th member of his dynasty to reign over the world’s oldest monarchy. All emperors of Japan, including the soon-to-reign Naruhito, trace their descent to the Shinto goddess of the sun Amaterasu through her descendant Jimmu, who is said in legends to have become the first emperor of Japan in 660 BC. Of course, modern historians and archaeologists tend not to believe such things, but have still found evidence that the Japanese imperial line dates back at least as early as the Kofun period around the 5th century AD – which still means the line of Japanese emperors goes back more than 1500 years!

How is this possible? Well, Japan’s emperors play a very unique role in Japanese society that has no equivalent in any other country. Indeed, it is only us Westerners who have dubbed them with the title “Emperor”, as a way to roughly conceptualize their status and position. The actual Japanese title is Tennō, meaning “heavenly sovereign”. The Japanese language refers to foreign emperors as “kōtei“, in order to distinguish them.

The Tennō reigns from the “takamikura” or Chrysanthemum Throne and during his reign, he has no name; he is just the Tennō. Many Western news media outlets and reference works will call the current monarch “Emperor Akihito”, referring to His Imperial Majesty by the name he used as a prince, but to the Japanese this would be considered quite disrespectful. Having said that, the traditional Japanese calendar divides Japanese history into “eras” that are each given a name, and a tradition has arisen that a new era name is selected upon the succession of a new emperor and that former emperors are referred to by the era name of their reign. Thus, Tuesday will be the first day of the “Reiwa” era, and the current emperor will then be referred to as “former Emperor Heisei”.

The Tennō is more than a reigning monarch, but the head of the Shinto religion as well. He is in charge of the three most sacred objects in Shinto, which are presented to him upon taking the throne: the Sacred Mirror that Shinto worshipers believe lured Amaterasu out of hiding, the Sacred Sword that her brother, the storm god Susanoo, pulled from the corpse of a dragon, and the Sacred Jewel that Amaterasu gifted her mortal descendants when she sent them to Earth. Indeed, as the role of the Tennō is considered sacred, he only very rarely speaks in public, which means that when he does speak, his words carry quite a lot of weight. The Tennō is so revered in Japanese society that the country’s very national anthem is a poem singing his praises.

Having said all of that, one would think that the Tennō is an extremely powerful figure in Japan. At least politically, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, from a constitutional standpoint, he is the least powerful monarch in the world. See, while most constitutional monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, legally retain some important political powers such as the ability to veto laws, appoint the Prime Minister and other important officials, declare war, command the armed forces, and ratify peace treaties, Japan’s constitution explicitly rips those powers away from the Emperor. The 1947 Constitution of Japan describes the Emperor as “The symbol of the state and the unity of the people”, and specifically instructs him to only exercise his functions and duties in accordance with the instructions of Japan’s democratically-elected politicians. For example, while the Queen may be theoretically free to choose whatever Prime Minister she wants and is only bound by long-standing tradition and custom to name Parliament’s preferred candidate, the Emperor is bound by the text of the constitution to choose the Prime Minister that the Diet picks for him. The Emperor’s political role has been described as a “rubber stamp”, but I think a more apt description might be something akin to a human flag. Just as a national flag is an object with immense symbolic value for a country, the Emperor is a person with immense symbolic value for Japan.

Why is this the case, though? Well…

Let’s just say a certain date that will live in infamy was involved.

The actual, on-the-ground political power of the Tennō has waxed and waned many times over the centuries due to a variety of historical factors. In the 7th century AD, the Emperor Kōtoku implemented a number of political reforms known as the Taika Reform, modelling Japan’s government on the Chinese model. At this point, we can call Kōtoku a true emperor, as he was assuming powers similar to the Chinese emperor. However, by the Heian period (AD 794-1185), the Fujiwara clan were actually running the show in the Emperor’s name. This was in part due to the fact that the Fujiwara frequently intermarried with the imperial family, and many emperors at this time had Fujiwara mothers who acted as regents for their sons. Toward the end of the Heian period, though, the Fujiwara’s power declined and civil war broke out between rival clans for power. This anarchic phase ended with the victory of Minamoto no Yoritomo, who seized power and became Japan’s first shogun. For centuries thereafter, the shoguns ruled Japan as military dictators of a feudal society. This is the age people think of when they think of historical Japan, with its castles, samurai, and ninja.

In theory, the shogun was appointed by the Tennō and ruled in his name, and the Tennō could dismiss a shogun that displeased him. In practice, however, this was very much not the case, as the Emperor Go-Daigo learned the hard way in the 14th century when he tried to do exactly that and ended up causing another civil war. Power remained firmly in the hands of the shoguns until 1853.

Why 1853? Well, that was the year that an expedition by the U.S. Navy led by Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan on a mission to convince the isolationist Japanese to open up their ports to trade with the United States. The massive steam-powered gunboats armed to the teeth with powerful cannons shocked and frightened the Japanese, who now saw how far behind the west they had become technologically. This precipitated a political conflict that led to another civil war between factions supporting the shogun and emperor, with the imperial faction (with some British backing) winning the day in the end.

This led to the Meiji Restoration in 1867, with the Emperor Meiji deposing the last shogun and re-establishing imperial rule for the first time in nearly a millennium. In 1890, Japan’s first constitution took effect, establishing a constitutional monarchy modeled on those of Europe at the time. While this constitution allowed for some limited democracy through the election of a Diet with legislative power, it also preserved the emperor’s role as an active political player with immense power. The emperor’s power was further magnified through the establishment of State Shinto, a form of the Shinto religion that was infused with political ideology, most notably including the belief that the emperor was more than just a descendant of Amterasu but a divine being in his own right who should be worshiped as such.

In the 1930’s, a series of militaristic, imperialistic prime ministers allied with war-hungry military commanders took power and launched a campaign to conquer China. This led to the United States imposing an oil embargo on Japan, to which the Japanese retaliated by bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During World War II, the regime justified its actions through the lens of State Shinto, holding that the world should know the benefits of the emperor’s divine rule and that it was glorious to die for the emperor. When Japan lost the war, the victorious Allies had to decide what to do about this imperial cult. Some called for the abolition of the Japanese emperor’s role entirely, or at least for then-Emperor Shōwa (known in the west by the name he had as as a prince, Hirohito) to be deposed. Ultimately, the decision was made to do neither, but instead to have the emperor publicly renounce his divinity and for Japan to be made to adopt a new constitution that stripped away all his political power.

In a way, then, the role of the Tennō has gone back to the way it was during the shogunate, only instead of the Tennō being a symbolic puppet of a military dictator, he is the symbolic puppet of a modern democracy. It’s amusing to me how things have come full-circle with a modern twist like that. It just goes to show that everywhere in the world, and throughout all of history, politics is always very strange.

Strange Politics: The Club that the World Treats Like a Country

We have covered the Strange Politics of some very small countries here at Cat Flag. We’ve talked about the Vatican City, the tiny global headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church tucked away in less than half a square kilometer of land in Rome. We’ve talked about Sealand, the quasi-legal micro-nation on a platform of the coast of England. Today, however, we are talking about a “country” that has no sovereign territory of any kind, whatsoever. It has only two citizens, one of whom is the only person in the world with a permanent passport issued by this “country”. Yet it is an officially-recognized UN permanent observer nation and it maintains embassies in countries around the world.

This “country” is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, or as it is officially called:

*deep breath*

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta


The Order of Malta, as its website calls it for simplicity’s sake, is treated in international law as a sovereign entity equal to any nation with actual soil. Its headquarters in Rome and its embassies around the world are given the same special legal status by their host nations as the embassies of countries like the United States, Russia, China, India, Ethiopia, or France. Yet when you look at how it actually functions in the real world, it is basically a fraternity that focuses most of its time and energy to charitable causes, like the Freemasons, Kiwanis Club, or Knights of Columbus.

How did this happen?

The story of the Order begins in 1048, when the Muslim ruler of Egypt granted the Catholic Church the right to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat pilgrims in the city. During the First Crusade, a Benedictine monk known as Blessed Gerard founded the Order of St. John of Jerusalem as a new monastic order that ran the hospital and cared for the wounded and sick. In the violent, chaotic times of the Crusades, it became clear that the hospital was in danger, so some of the knights serving in the Holy Land joined the order and swore to defend it. Appropriately enough, these knights came to be known as the “Knights Hospitaller”.

While the First Crusade was successful in conquering the Holy Land for Christendom, over the next two centuries the surrounding Muslim nations continuously wore away at the Christian holdings, and successive Crusades failed to hold back this tide. By 1291, all the Crusaders had been kicked out of the Middle East, including the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights set up shop in exile on the island of Cyprus, ruled at the time by the friendly House of Lusignan. However, this initial friendliness quickly soured as a dynastic dispute within the Cypriot royal family pitted the Knights Hospitaller against another, perhaps more famous order of Crusaders, the Knights Templar.

These conflicts led the Knights Hospitaller to decide they needed a base under their own control where they could operate freely. So, in 1306, they just up and invaded the island of Rhodes, conquering it after four years’ fighting. For more than two centuries, the knights ruled Rhodes and functioned as the island’s government. They used it as a major naval base to raid the coasts of Turkey, Syria and Egypt. In 1523, a certain Ottoman sultan by the name of Suleiman the Magnificent got a bit fed up with these pirates, and captured Rhodes, forcing the knights into exile again.

Seven years later, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V decided to grant the tiny yet strategically-located islands of Malta to the Knights. Perhaps he felt sorry for the knights, or perhaps the devoutly Catholic emperor wanted to do something nice for the Church as an apology for sacking Rome and taking the Pope prisoner.

In any case, the knights would rule Malta for 268 years, building fortresses, churches, palaces, and, of course, hospitals. Under the knights’ rule, Malta was neutral in all wars between Christian nations, but played a key role in the wars against the Ottoman Turkish navy and North African pirates. They also very briefly tried their hand at colonialism, taking possession of several islands in the Caribbean for a few years. However, not all was well with the Order. The Protestant Reformation led to a schism, with the Order’s German branch adopting Lutheranism and consequently being expelled, though it continues to operate to this day as a separate organization.

The end of the knights’ rule in Malta came when Napoleon Bonaparte led a French invasion and conquest of the islands in 1798. The British were not about to let the French hold such a vital position in the Mediterranean, and the Maltese were none too happy with the French occupation, so the British helped liberate Malta from the French and the islanders offered their homeland to the British for protection. Malta would remain a British colony until 1964. Of course, since they happened to rule Malta, the British royals decided to create an order of chivalry of their own modeled on the Knights Hospitaller.

As for the original order that started it all, they were now in exile in Italy, eventually setting up their headquarters in Rome. They still exist today, with 135,000 members operating in 120 countries. While the Order no longer governs Rhodes, nor Malta, nor any Caribbean islands, nor any territory for that matter, it is still treated as a “sovereign subject of international law” recognized by 108 countries and the EU, mainly because of its historical status as an ex-national government. In this sense, it is something like a government-in-exile, a “government” that has lost control of its country, but continues to claim to be the legitimate ruler of that country, and in some cases continues to be recognized as such by foreign powers. Except the Order does not lay claim to Malta, and in fact has concluded treaties with it.

What does this Order do, then?

In practice, the Order of Malta today is mainly focused on providing medical services and humanitarian aid to victims of war or natural disaster, and to serving the needs of the poor, homeless, elderly, and disabled. In recent years, they have been operating in Syria and Iraq to help the victims of ISIS. The unique legal status of their members as sort-of diplomats from a sort-of country is actually quite useful to their operations in this regard, giving them some legal cover from potentially hostile local authorities. In particular, the fact that the order maintains a policy of complete neutrality means that its members operating in war zones are seen as more trustworthy than, say, official humanitarian missions from the United States or Russia or China.

Like any charity, its funding comes from a mix of grants from national governments or international organizations (such as the UN or EU) and private donations. They have a variety of chapters around the world, with the branch in the United States operating as the Order of Malta American Association.

Like the Freemasons, the Order continues to engage in elaborate ceremonial pageantry honoring its history, with members organized into three classes that are subdivided into multiple categories, with the highest-ranking members called “Knights of Justice”. The leader of the Order is called the Prince and Grand Master, who is elected to serve for life by the Order’s government. He is made a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church as part of his position, and in order to qualify for the position, he must be of noble birth.

Yes, I DID just say the Order has a government. Why wouldn’t it? The Order’s members elect a Sovereign Council, led by the Grand Master, who handle the executive functions of the government and have legislative power over matters that don’t involve the Order’s constitution (oh, by the way, the Order has a constitution). The members also elect a Chapter General that handles constitutional questions. Then there are the Courts of the Order, because, yes, the Order has its own courts.

Quite the elaborate framework for an organization that is mainly focused on helping the sick and needy.

So, how do I join?

Well, here’s the bad news. You can’t just apply for membership; nobody can. Membership is by invitation only. However, the Order does accept volunteers to help them carry out their charitable missions, with 80,000 volunteers helping the order with all manner of things from disaster relief to homeless aid programs to an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, a sacred site of the Catholic faith in France known for its healing waters. The Order also employs 42,000 doctors, nurses, and other personnel. So, I guess there’s that.

What can I say? When it comes to politics, just when you think you’ve seen the strangest things can get, you learn that it can get even stranger.

Before the Republicans and Democrats – Early America’s Political Parties

The midterm elections are just a month away, with the Democrats hoping to regain control of Congress and the Republicans hoping to stave them off and keep their majorities in both houses. It’s amazing to me to think that these same two political parties have traded power with each other since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Party was founded in 1828, the Republican Party in 1854. If you look at the political parties in other countries around the world, you find that this persistence of a rigid two-party system is practically unheard of. In dictatorships, the political party in power can be changed with a simple coup, while in democracies, political parties usually squabble, break apart, merge together, and rise and fall in popularity on a whim. In fact, America’s two main political parties are the oldest in the world. The fact that they remain in power is quite the accomplishment.

However, America wasn’t always dominated by these two parties.

After the United States gained its independence, political parties weren’t really a thing at first. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties as the Framers thought that America would be run by the wisest men, and surely the wisest men would never stoop so low as to form rival political factions that would compete for power, right?

Except that then several Founding Fathers formed the first political parties in America, much to the dismay of George Washington, who feared that these parties would divide the country and put their own interests before that of the nation as a whole. He was unable to stop his Cabinet from turning against each other, and by the time he left office, America’s first two political parties had been established: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

The Federalist Party

Existed 1789-1824

Founded by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and John Adams, among others, the Federalist Party supported a strong national government that could rein in the states and keep them in line for the common good of all. They believed the Constitution was only the first step in nation-building, and supported Hamilton’s plans to fix the postwar U.S. economy through centralized control of banking and the establishment of a national debt. In foreign policy, they believed it was in the new nation’s best interests to try to repair relations with the British and maintain neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars that were tearing Europe apart at the time. Washington actually supported this agenda, which is why some lists of U.S. presidents will mistakenly label him as a Federalist as well.

The Federalists were more popular among conservatives, businessmen, urban dwellers, and Congregationalists. Their main base of support was in the northern states, particularly New England and New York. They achieved the height of their power during the presidency of John Adams, controlling the newly-built White House, both houses of Congress, and the majority of the state governments. However, their brief time in power proved to be like Icarus flying too close to the sun. As America waged an unofficial naval war against France, Adams and the Federalists passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts that all but banned immigration and made it a federal crime to criticize the government.

First Amendment? What First Amendment?

Well, criticize the government is exactly what Americans did, voting the Federalists out of power in 1800. Things would only get worse for the Federalists as the years went on. They staunchly opposed the War of 1812, causing many Americans to see them as pro-British traitors. They never recovered from this political blow, and by 1820, they didn’t even have enough support to nominate a candidate for president. They slowly faded out of politics over the succeeding decade.

The Democratic-Republican Party

Existed 1792-1824

First of all, this political party wasn’t called “Democratic-Republican” at the time. When it was first formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, it had been called the “Anti-Administration Party” as its members opposed the policies of the Federalists in George Washington’s administration. Very quickly, however, they decided to change the party’s name to the Republican Party, in honor of the fact that it espoused “republican virtues”. It was this name that the party used throughout its existence. Much as historians now call that part of the Roman Empire that survived after Rome itself fell “The Byzantine Empire”, so too do historians call Jefferson’s political party “The Democratic-Republican Party” as a way to avoid confusion with today’s Republicans, who named themselves after it.

Jefferson and Madison based their party around the simple idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as strictly as possible and the federal government should only be as large as necessary. To them, it had been the states that won their independence from Britain, and the states should now be free to do as they pleased. They wanted America to support the French Revolution, seeing it as an extension of their own revolution against monarchy and tyranny. They were most popular among farmers, liberals, and the southern states. They were the first political party to form a highly-organized, modern “get-out-the-vote” campaign, passing out leaflets, conducting polls, and helping potential voters register.

These tactics paid off in 1800, when Jefferson won the presidency (though he first had to contend with his own running mate, Aaron Burr, a story I’ve covered on this blog before). As the Federalists slowly collapsed, the party came to dominate American politics, getting three presidents elected in a row: Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. They also maintained control of Congress from 1802 onward. By 1820, America had basically become a one-party state, with Monroe running for president unopposed. America was under the party’s complete control.

Then, apparently, they all got drunk and decided it would be a good idea to run four candidates for president against each other.

In 1824, the party nominated Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. The “logic” behind this decision was that each was popular in a particular region of the country. As a result, nobody won an outright majority of the vote. However, Jackson was cleary the most popular of the four, winning the largest share of the popular vote as well as the largest number of electors in the Electoral College.

Still, with nobody earning a majority, it was up to Congress to make the final call. Rather than just going ahead and ratifying Jackson’s election, however, Congress picked Adams to be the new president. This infuriated Jackson, who claimed that the election had been stolen from him by a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay. He spent the next four years going on a nationwide tirade against the Washington elites, and having his supporters stubbornly push back against the Adams administration at every turn. This divide permanently cleaved the party in two, with Jackson’s supporters forming a new political party: the Democratic Party. Yes, that one.

The Whig Party

Existed 1834-1854

Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams ran against each other once again in 1828. This time, Jackson won, hands-down, no question about it, becoming America’s seventh president. Jackson proved to be an extremely controversial president, and made quite a few enemies. Eventually, these enemies all joined forces to form a new political party: The Whig Party.

That’s Whig party, not “wig party”. The name is British in origin, referring to those who supported a constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute one. In the early years of the American Revolution, before the idea of independence had set in, Americans who resisted the British authorities often called themselves “Whigs”. The American Whig Party adopted this name in reference to the idea that they were resisting what they saw as a tyrannical president.

The interesting thing about the Whigs is that they brought together anyone who hated Jackson and his policies, be they liberal, moderate, or conservative. The party’s membership often disagreed on many issues, and sometimes had little in common with each other. This was probably why in their first presidential election in 1836, they nominated four candidates that ran against each other. Because that worked so well last time.

By 1840, however, they got their act together and united behind war hero William Henry Harrison, who became the first Whig president. Then promptly died after one month in office. This made John Tyler the first vice-president to take over as president in U.S. history.

Now that Andrew Jackson was no longer in the picture, the Whigs had to actually come up with something else they could all agree on to keep their diverse party together. They settled on a mentality of political pragmatism: if it works, they were for it. They supported the construction and expansion of the national infrastructure, from roads to schools. They supported tariffs on imported goods in order to raise tax revenue for the government while supporting American businesses. They also believed the United States was large enough, and didn’t need to expand any further west.

Except Tyler really liked the idea of expanding further to the west. In particular, he hoped to annex Texas, which enraged his own party. Eventually, the Whigs kicked Tyler out of their party, while he was still in office. Yikes!

The real crisis for the Whigs, however, came in the next few years. In 1844, Democrat James K. Polk succeeded to the White House and promptly expanded the nation all the way to the Pacific, annexing the Oregon territory and defeating Mexico in a war of conquest. Acquiring these new lands meant that a decision had to be made over whether slavery should be allowed there. Southerners said yes, northerners said no. Once again, the Whigs rallied behind a war hero, Zachary Taylor, and once again, he became president only to die in office and leave a controversial vice-president in charge. This time, the new president was Millard Fillmore, who managed to work out the Compromise of 1850, one of those compromises-that-makes-everyone-even-angrier. It angered the southerners for not allowing enough of the new territories to practice slavery, and it angered the northerners for letting any of these new lands practice slavery at all.

This, finally, split the party for good. The Whig Party simply couldn’t withstand the divide among its own members over the slavery question. Over the next few years, the Whigs disintegrated.

The Know-Nothings

Existed 1849-1856

The collapse of the Whigs left the political scene wide open for any would-be political movement that wanted to challenge the Democrats, and as a result, we get the weirdest political party in U.S. history, which had a brief bit of success for a hot minute before vanishing.

In the 1840s, large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy began to arrive in America, and this freaked some Protestants out. Fearing that these Catholics would seize power in the Pope’s name, they formed a secret society called the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”. Because it was a secret society, its members would deny its existence by saying they “knew nothing”. Hence, the nickname they have been given by historians.

In the 1850s, as the Whigs collapsed, many Know-Nothings ran for office under the banner of the “American Party”, which campaigned on an anti-Catholic ticket and won a handful of elections. However, after their brief moment in the sunshine, they declined just as quickly as they arose. Turns out people just weren’t that interested in anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. They were more concerned about slavery.

The Free Soil Party

Existed 1848-1854

Another short-lived political party, the Free Soil Party was formed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to oppose the expansion of slavery in the west. Formed by Democrats who wanted to ban slavery in the newly-won territories, the Free-Soilers attracted anti-slavery Whigs and other abolitionist groups to their cause, and even managed to get former president Martin Van Buren as their nominee in their first election in 1848. The Free-Soilers declared that they would accept no compromise on this issue. There were enough slave states! No more!

Unfortunately, that attitude backfired when the Compromise of 1850 was passed. The Free Soil Party rejected the compromise, of course, but this made them look like stubborn and unreasonable jerks. Their stance on this issue cost them support, and by 1852, they recieved half the votes they had just four years earlier. By 1854, the party had collapsed, but slavery was still a contentious issue. That was the year that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, infuriating abolitionists across America. In this climate, the founders of the Free Soil Party decided to try again, and founded a new political party: the Republican Party. Yes, that one.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. That’s how we got to the two main political parties America has today. Now I need to go study the candidates and ballot propositions in my hometown so I can be prepared when I vote. I hope to see you all at the polls as well!

The Official Language of the United States

The official language of the United States is English, of course! Everyone knows that. Easiest Cat Flag blog post ever. Well, see you next time, Cat Flaggers! Have a wonderful 4th of Jul…

Wait a second.

Of course it’s not that simple. Otherwise, why would I blog about it?

No, believe it or not the United States of America has no official language! This is a very unusual distinction, as only seven other countries don’t have a legally-recognized official language.

What is an official language, anyway? It’s a language that is given a special status by the laws of a country as the language of formal government business. Usually, this also gives the official language a symbolic status as the “national language”, symbolizing the unity of the country’s people. For example, in Pakistan, 74 different languages are spoken, with five languages having more than ten million speakers. However, the Pakistani government designated Urdu as the official language of the country to bind the people of Pakistan together, and most Pakistanis are able to speak fluent Urdu, which is useful when talking to someone with a different native tounge.

However, official languages are also sometimes used to symbolically recognize minority groups in a country and be inclusive toward them. Canada has two official languages: English and French. This is because most Canadians speak English in their day-to-day lives, but some Canadians, particularly in the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, speak French instead. All acts of the Canadian national government, from laws to court rulings to official documents, must be in both languages. On top of that, Canada’s highest-ranking political leaders are expected to be bilingual.

Sometimes countries can go to extremes with their official languages. South Africa has eleven official languages. Neighboring Zimbabwe has 16. India, arguably, has the most official languages, ranging from 18 to 23, depending on what you count, as India’s language laws are quite complicated and often contradictory, with different levels and degrees of official-ness assigned to each language.

Yet the good ol’ U-S-of-A has never actually passed any law that declares any official language whatsoever. Which begs the obvious question: why?

Well, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Various important figures in American history from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt have proposed formal declarations of an official language for the United States, and there is an entire political movement that lobbies for an official language law. Naturally, all of these proposals have suggested English as the official language, except that one time in 1923 when Congressman Washington J. McCormick proposed a bill to make “American” our official language.

Oh, and you may have also heard a story that in 1795, Congress almost voted to make German our official language, but this is patently untrue – what actually happened was that Congress voted on whether or not to permit a printer to translate the federal laws into German, and adjourned before any decision could be made.

Regardless, it seems rather odd that in spite of all these proposals over the years, we never have formally adopted English as our official language. I mean, almost every other country has an official language, after all! Yet, believe it or not, there are actually groups that staunchly oppose any declaration of an official language, arguing that doing so would violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and only serve to stoke anti-immigrant hatred and discrimination.

Still, I personally feel there is another reason that America has never adopted an official language. We don’t need one. About 80% of Americans speak English at home, and almost 60% of those who don’t can still speak English “very well”, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. English may not be our official language, but it’s sort of an unofficial-official language. I mean, almost all formal government business at the federal level is conducted in English, which as we stated in the beginning, is what an official language is for. Whenever some member of Congress proposes a bill to make English our official language, it dies in committee, not because the other members of Congress are opposed to the idea, but because they have more important things to worry about.

But you know who does have the time to worry about meaningless things like official languages? The states.

That’s right, thanks in large part to those official-language advocates I mentioned earlier, 32 state governments have formally declared English as an official language of their state, including my home state of California. Plus, all five of the U.S. territories have English as an official language as well.

You will notice, though, that I said English is an official language of these places. That’s because, in some cases, these states and territories have given official status to other languages alongside English. Hawaii has two official languages: English and Hawaiian. In Alaska, all 20 of the indigenous languages spoken by native peoples in the state were made co-official in 2014. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, has Spanish and English as official languages, with Spanish as the “primary” official language. American Samoa has English and Samoan as co-official. Chamorro is an official language on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, while the latter also includes Carolinian among its official language list as well.

Then you have some states that are unusual cases. When New Mexico became a state, it had two official languages, English and Spanish. However, that clause has since lapsed, and the state no longer has any official language, though its laws give certain protections to Spanish speakers. Similarly, Louisiana has never had an official language, but unofficially, it has always been a bilingual state with English and French both being used by the state government.

That’s not even to mention all of the many Indian reservations across the United States, most of which have declared their tribe’s traditional languages as their official language, as part of an effort to help preserve these languages. It is very common for schools on reservations to teach these tribal languages to the next generation.

I suppose it was inevitable that a country that is home to speakers of at least 350 languages would have a complicated relationship with language. Still, it’s strange and bizarre facts about my home country like these that are a part of what I love so much about it. Stay weird, America, and have a Happy 4th of July!

The Country That Shall Not Be Named!

It’s Olympics time once again! I absolutely love the Olympics, in case I hadn’t mentioned it on this blog before. My favorite winter events are the bobsled and luge, though I’m also a fan of snowboarding, curling, and speed skating. This year, however, as you watch the alpine skiing and cross country skiing events, you will see some athletes competing under a very unusual “country” name.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Yes, that is a real country, but no, that is not its name. It’s just what everyone is forced to call it thanks to some good old-fashioned Strange Politics.

Our story begins more than two millennia ago. Just north of ancient Greece, there was a kingdom called Macedon that was famous for its horses. The kingdom was heavily influenced by its Greek neighbors, and under its king Philip II it came to dominate Greece in the 4th century BC. However, the most famous Macedonian ruler by far was Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire, subdued Egypt, and marched as far east as India. Alexander was one of the greatest military commanders of history, but he died before he could consolidate power. After he passed away, his generals split his empire among themselves. A century and a half later, the Romans conquered the area and created the province of Macedonia.

Roman Macedonia lasted a very, very long time – it continued to exist until the 7th century AD. What brought it to an end, though, is also the root of all the controversy. Slavic peoples from eastern Europe migrated south, invading and conquering most of the Balkans. These invaders became the ancestors of many of the ethnic groups that live in southeastern Europe today such as the Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians.

Centuries later, the entire region was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and centuries after that, several countries broke away from Ottoman rule: Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro. In 1912, these four countries ganged up on the Ottomans to drive them out of Europe. They had made an agreement beforehand on how they would divide the land up between them, but over the course of the war, Greece and Serbia seized portions of Macedonia, a region that had been promised to Bulgaria. This prompted Bulgaria to declare war on its former allies, but that plan backfired, as Bulgaria ended up losing far more land and was forced to give up virtually all of Macedonia to the Serbs and Greeks.

The Greek-controlled region of Macedonia was particularly important to the Greeks, since it included many important historic sites tied to Alexander the Great. The area was originally inhabited by a mixture of Greeks, Slavic peoples, Turks, and others. However, after the Greek takeover, the population was thoroughly Hellenized, with non-Greeks either being expelled or forced to adopt Greek names, convert to the Greek Orthodox Church, and speak Greek. Today, the population of Greek Macedonia overwhelmingly identifies as Greek.

Meanwhile, Serbia merged with some of its neighbors in the aftermath of World War I, becoming Yugoslavia, a country that existed for most of the 20th century. The Yugoslav-controlled part of Macedonia was originally called Varnar Banovina, but under the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito, the region adopted the name Socialist Republic of Macedonia. The inhabitants of this region mostly belonged to a Slavic people that are closely related to ethnic Bulgarians, but have identified themselves as “Macedonian” since at least the late 19th century. The new name reflected the desire of Macedonian nationalists to be recognized as a legitimate ethnic group, and not just a subgroup of the Bulgarians, and to gain some political autonomy. However, Greece objected to the name, on the grounds that it was a ploy to try to invade and annex Greek Macedonia. The fact that Yugoslavia was supporting Communist rebels in Greece didn’t help that impression.

Then, in the 1990s, Yugoslavia broke up, and “Macedonia” gained its independence, and like all newly independent nations, it began to forge its own national identity. The Macedonian leadership decided to adopt symbols of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, such as the Vergina Sun that Alexander the Great used as his emblem. The airport serving the country’s capital of Skopje was named Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, and the city’s main sports stadium was named Philip II Arena. To Macedonians, this was just a way to honor their ancient history while instilling a sense of national pride.

To the Greeks, this was some rogue Bulgarians stealing their stuff.

Who’d have though someone who lived more than 2,000 years ago would cause so much controversy?

To the Greeks, ancient Macedon was a Greek kingdom, Alexander the Great was Greek, and the only legitimate “Macedonia” is the Greek region. They claim that for this ethnic group inhabiting the country to their north to call themselves “Macedonian” is cultural appropriation. Greece rejects the use of the name Macedonia for this country, and demands that the country change its name. And yes, Greece still claims that the name “obviously” represents a scheme to try to take over Greek Macedonia.

So what? Greece doesn’t like the name Macedonia chose for itself. Who cares?

Well, Greece is a member of the European Union, and Macedonia wants to join the European Union. For a country to join the EU, it must have the approval of all existing EU members. Thus, Greece has used this rule to repeatedly block Macedonia’s membership application. Also, Greece is a member of NATO, making it an ally of the United States. Nobody messes with an ally of the United States.

Thus, while Greece may be small potatoes on the global political scene, it has enough connections to convince not only the Olympics, but also the United Nations and many other international organizations to only let the country participate under the description “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. For decades now, the two countries have negotiated and argued over the name, with the Greeks refusing to let the northerners call themselves “Macedonians” and the Macedonians refusing to adopt any other name. There have been several proposed compromises over the years, including:

  • New Macedonia
  • Upper Macedonia
  • Slavo-Macedonia
  • Vardar Republic
  • Independent Republic of Macedonia
  • Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)
  • Republic of North Macedonia

Still, the two sides seem to be no closer to an agreement, so for now, the poor country is stuck with a name that no other country will dare say and a horribly unsatisfying “description” instead. Once again, politics is just… strange.