How Japan’s Akihito redefined the role of emperor

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As a new imperial era begins in Japan, Emperor Akihito has left behind a legacy of modernity and compassion. During his 30-year reign, he defied monarchial norms, drawing both criticism and praise, writes DW’s Martin Fritz.

Today in Japan, a new era will be named to replace the “Heisei” era of Japan’s Emperor Akihito. His reign will officially end on April 30, and talks have been going on for months over what to call the next era.

During the Heisei era, Japan experienced a slowdown of its economic boom, dropped behind China as the world’s second-largest economy, and accrued an unprecedented national debt. The average age of the population also increased and Japanese refer to the period as the “lost decades”. The Heisei era was also marked by political turbulence and saw 17 prime ministers, with only four lasting more than two years.

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Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko provided a source of consistency and reliability for Japanese society during these uncertain times. They consoled victims of natural disasters, provided a humanitarian example, and became a symbol of Japan’s moral conscience by retaining the memory of World War II.

When Akihito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, Japan’s imperial dynasty was in a crisis. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Japanese emperor was no longer considered a divine, god-like figure. Emperor Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, attempted to bring the throne closer to the Japanese people after the war, but Japan’s traditional reverence for the emperor was still too large a gap to cross.

Looking for change, Emperor Hirohito tried to emulate the constitutional monarchy in Great Britain. He selected the American children’s book author Elizabeth Gray-Vining to be his son’s private tutor, and hoped to raise a new kind of emperor. Ms Gray-Vining was able to instill foreign ideals in the young Akihito along with a European understanding of monarchy.

Emperor Akihito would end up marrying a middle-class woman named Michiko. They raised their children in their own home and sent them to study at Oxford University in Great Britain.

After he became emperor, Emperor Akihito wanted to change Japan’s imperial institution, which is known as “Tenno”. After he took the throne, he said he would always consider the happiness of the Japanese people and make sure the emperorship was suited to modern Japan.

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Together with his wife, Emperor Akihito prioritised his relationship with the Japanese people and made frequent public appearances. After a volcanic eruption in 1991, Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko went to the disaster area in ordinary clothes and consoled the victims. Japanese conservatives were shocked by the action, but the media, and the Japanese people, loved it.

The couple redefined the role of the imperial family. They met with victims of tragedy and visited people in retirement homes and handicapped care centers. They found a warm-hearted reception everywhere they went and Emperor Akihito became a symbol of Japan’s national integration.

“In the Heisei era, this new style was well received as social inequality grew and many people fell into depression and lost perspective on life,” said Hideya Kawanishi, an expert at Nagoya University on Japan’s monarchy.

Emperor Akihito also had to contend with the legacy of his father, in whose name the Imperial Japanese Army took over half of Asia during World War II. To this day, Japan’s conservative elites are reluctant to take responsibility and apologise for the suffering Japan caused during the war.

Although he was technically forbidden from making political statements, Emperor Akihito made a point to visit Indonesia and China during his first trips abroad. In China he expressed regret for Japan’s aggression and praised the accomplishments of Chinese culture, while reminding Japan of how much they owe their own culture to China.

When Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided using the word “regret” during a 2015 speech for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the emperor gave his own speech and spoke about Japan’s “deep self-criticism”.

“To put it bluntly, Akihito was more committed to reconciliation with Japan’s neighbours than most Japanese prime ministers during the Heisei era,” said historian Torsten Weber from the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko also visited the Philippines and World War II battlefields between the US and Japan on Pacific islands. Emperor Akihito was unable to directly apologise for the war due to law, but he was always able to carefully find words to express regret and prayer for all victims of war.

According to experts on Japan’s monarchy, Emperor Akihito is abdicating the throne early due to pressure from Japanese conservatives who say his health is failing and that he is too old. Emperor Akihito is said to be concerned over the legacy of his reign and wants to preserve the image he created for Japan’s monarchial institution.

“Akihito wants to abdicate early in order to transfer his activities untarnished to his son,” said expert Kawanishi. In February, the successor to Japan’s imperial throne, Crown Prince Naruhito, confirmed that he would continue the work of his parents.


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