The son has risen in Japan, as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko bowed out gracefully in favor of their son and daughter-in-law, now the Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. What, you missed this on May Day? You are not alone. The Japanese head of state, like the British monarch, has an important public role, but no real political power.
President Trump thanked the outgoing Emperor and Empress on 29 April, then sent greetings and congratulations to the incoming emperor and empress on 30 April. This abdication was a new thing for Japanese emperors since the Meiji Restoration, when the emperors reassumed real power:
Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, formally ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne today. His 85-year-old father, Akihito, yesterday became the first leader in two centuries to step down, citing ill health. He is now Emperor Emeritus.
Akihito was a beloved figurehead, whose three-decade-long rule provided stability during events such as the 2011 tsunami, which killed thousands. He traveled extensively as a diplomat for Japan, and together with his wife broke tradition by interacting with the public.
Emperor Akihito was the first to ascend to the throne under the post-war constitution. His challenge was to give the office meaning and relevance to the Japanese people, to earn his keep and ensure his office’s endurance. Akihito became emperor in 1989 when some scholars were declaring an end to history.
Akihito, though, redefined the role of emperor, using his reign to repair ties with Japan’s wartime victims, including a historic visit to China in 1992.
Evocative images of his reign show him and Empress Michiko comforting people affected by natural disasters and reaching out to marginalised groups, including former leprosy patients who were incarcerated in state-run sanatoriums until the mid-1990s.
The 59-year-old Naruhito, who spent two years at Oxford and wrote his thesis on the history of transport on the Thames, and Masako, a Harvard-educated former career diplomat, will greet the public for the first as emperor and empress on Saturday.
So, the new team comes to the job with long preparation and “serious” credentials. Reportedly, the abdication and coronation ceremonies were both very brief and deliberately low key.
Remarks by His Majesty the Emperor on the Occasion of the Ceremony of His Abdication at the Seiden (State Hall), April 30, 31st Year of Heisei (2019)
Today, I am concluding my duties as the Emperor.
I would like to offer my deep gratitude to the words just spoken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on behalf of the people of Japan.
Since ascending the throne 30 years ago, I have performed my duties as the Emperor with a deep sense of trust in and respect for the people, and I consider myself most fortunate to have been able to do so. I sincerely thank the people who accepted and supported me in my role as the symbol of the State.
I sincerely wish, together with the Empress, that the Reiwa era, which begins tomorrow, will be a stable and fruitful one, and I pray, with all my heart, for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan and around the world.
While Americans should wish the Japanese people well, as important allies in the Pacific region, it seems the Japanese imperial household all too faithfully represents their people. The emperor who oversaw the transition to democracy had seven children: 2 sons and 5 daughters. His son, who just stepped down from the throne, had three children: 2 sons and 1 daughter. The current emperor has only one child, his daughter Aiko, who is the Princess Toshi. In their fifties, the imperial couple will no more children. The decline in this truly ancient dynasty reflects the demographic contraction the Japanese people have chosen as a whole.
The new emperor’s reign has been named the Reiwa Era, a combination of two characters, rei, meaning good or auspicious, and wa, meaning harmony or peace. The practice of naming eras to characterize each emperor’s reign in advance is ancient, yet the government chose to break from tradition within tradition, changing the source from classic Chinese to classic Japanese literature:
Japan’s new era beginning May 1 following an imperial succession will be called “Reiwa,” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying Monday it is taken from a Japanese classic for the first time and signifies people joining their hearts to develop the country’s culture.
Abe said the concept of the new era name, or “gengo,” was adopted from Japan’s oldest collection of poems from the late seventh to eighth centuries, marking the first departure from Chinese classics in more than 1,300 years of the era system being in use.
Perhaps the government felt the need to reassert Japanese history, independent of their very large ancient neighbor, who is making much of supposed historical claims to vast territories. As with the British queen, the Japanese emperor is conveying the government’s approved message, with no independent policy expression. President Trump in his official statement on the enthronement, showed support for this position:
As the Japanese people embark upon a new era, “Reiwa,” we will renew the strong bonds of friendship between our two countries. “Reiwa” means “beautiful harmony,” and it is our sincere wish that our alliance continue to flourish and deepen in this spirit. Today, our kindest thoughts are with the Japanese people, and we share in the hope for an even brighter future.
Those are good sentiments we may all support, and we should all certainly desire a future in which this friendship helps keep peace and economic stability in the region. If those sentiments and desires are to be realized, Japan is going to need to choose to look a lot more like this:
Rather than this: