WHEN Japan’s Emperor Akihito abdicates on Tuesday, the gengo — or era name — of Heisei (‘achieving peace’) under his 1989–2019 reign will come to an end.
A new era will begin when his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, ascends the throne on May 1. The new era will be known as Reiwa (‘beautiful harmony’) as revealed by the Abe Cabinet to an eagerly awaiting Japanese public on April 1.
Although the Japanese government and people use both the Western calendar and the Japanese imperial period system, the latter has had a special place in Japanese history for over thirteen centuries. In modern Japan, landmark public and personal memories are still often identified with era names.
The era of Showa (‘enlightened harmony’), under Emperor Hirohito’s 1926–1989 reign, was divided into two periods: the pre-war years of militarism, war and defeat, and the post-war years of rebuilding, peace and economic prosperity.
During his reign, Hirohito underwent an extraordinary transformation from being pre-war an absolute monarch of near-divine status to the more humanised post-war symbolic monarch with no real political power under the democratic constitution. Hirohito was haunted in the latter period by the question of his wartime responsibility as he was excused by the US-led Allied powers from facing the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.
Unlike his aloof and conservative father, the personable and open-minded Akihito broke with archaic Imperial House tradition by marrying a commoner, Michiko. She also broke tradition by raising her children herself under the same roof.
Although Heisei era Japan suffered from economic stagnation caused by the bursting of Japan’s asset price bubble in the early 1990s and a number of devastating natural disasters, the Imperial House of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko earned solid popularity both at home and abroad. The couple came to symbolise a modern, liberal and open court which stayed close to the people.
One of the most noteworthy legacies of Emperor Akihito will be his tireless efforts to travel, both at home and abroad, to promote peace and reconciliation with the victims of the 1931–1945 Asia Pacific War waged in his father’s name. Expressing his remorse and regret to peoples across the region, including in Okinawa, Hiroshima, the Korean peninsula, China and the Philippines and elsewhere, Emperor Akihito represented Japan’s commitment to pacifism as ‘the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people’.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko also promoted the welfare of the Japanese people as part of their duties, tirelessly engaging in compassionate work for social causes. They were concerned with marginalised peoples — the poor, the disabled and ethnic minorities. They comforted and encouraged survivors of natural disasters.
After the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the couple visited thousands of survivors in shelters. Images of the Emperor and the Empress getting on their knees on shelter floors won over the hearts of the Japanese people.
August 2016 saw another unprecedented move, with Akihito announcing that he had lost confidence in his capacity to serve as a symbol of national unity due to illness and age. He indirectly conveyed his desire to abdicate, something which is not permitted under Imperial Household Law.
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The conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, tagged for his right-wing nationalist political ideology, was unlikely to have welcomed the Emperor’s proposition. Yet he improvised a one-time cabinet decision to make it possible, as the Japanese public overwhelmingly believed that the Emperor should be allowed to retire.
The Japanese media has recognised the widening gap between Emperor Akihito, who embraces the pacifist course, and Prime Minister Abe, who is implementing a more assertive foreign policy — including establishing Japan’s first-ever National Security Council and National Security Strategy. The Abe government also reinterpreted the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of the Constitution to permit Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) the right to engage in limited forms of collective self-defence.
When Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the throne, many expect him to follow his father as a champion of pacifism, civil liberties and the welfare of the people. But as the Abe government continues to pursue constitutional revision to recognise the SDF, the new Emperor may be standing at a crossroads.
Given the constitutional limitations on Japanese Emperors it is hard to tell what Naruhito can or will do, but compared with his father’s mild manner and humility, the Oxford-educated Naruhito is known to be more individualistic, independent and outspoken.
Besides the issue of abdication, the Imperial Household Law may be long overdue for amendment on the question of succession. The law stipulates that the Chrysanthemum Throne must be succeeded by a male, but Crown Prince Naruhito only has a daughter, Princess Aiko.
In the age of increasing gender equality the law seems anachronistic to most liberals, but the conservative Abe Cabinet does not seem interested in amending it. Will the new Emperor and his Western-educated wife, Masako, be content with accepting the old tradition?
In contrast to its moniker of ‘beautiful harmony’, the Reiwa era may begin with some less than harmonious dialogue between the Imperial House and the Abe cabinet.
Noriko Kawamura is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Washington State University.