As the abdication of Emperor Akihito (b. 1933; r. 1989-2019) approaches and Japan’s imperial house is in the news, individuals may remember the monarchy’s wartime antecedent and wonder why a liberal democracy maintains such a curious relic of the past.
There is plentiful wartime footage of Japanese ritualistically bowing en masse to their emperor, and accounts of Japanese soldiers, after shouting “Long live the Emperor,” blowing themselves up with grenades rather than suffer ignominious surrender. Additionally, colonized subjects throughout the empire were required to perform various rituals in honor of “their” emperor, the sort of heavy-handed imperialistic practices that are still remembered with distaste in parts of Asia.
But one must understand the distance that the present Japanese imperial house has traveled since Japan’s defeat in 1945.
Democracy in Japan
Although claims by some Americans of having “introduced democracy” to Japan after World War II are thoroughly exaggerated, it is nonetheless true that postwar Japan differs in fundamental ways from Imperial Japan (1890-1945). Democracy and pacifism filled the post-defeat vacuum. These differences have been on display during the reign of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
Emperor Akihito began his reign with a ringing endorsement of the Constitution, whose values include peace, democracy, and internationalism. The Emperor and Empress have made no secret, throughout their reign, of how strongly they endorse the postwar system.
Including All in Japanese Society
The Emperor and Empress have also devoted much of their reign to lending their social prestige to the weakest members of Japanese society — individuals with disabilities, for example. They have done this in order to compress the margins of Japan’s society — in other words, to bring those individuals outside of the mainstream into the mainstream.
Far from being above the clouds like its pre-1945 antecedent, today’s imperial house is among the people, including among those who could most use a helping hand.
Acknowledging the Wartime Past
Additionally, Emperor Akihito has undertaken a comprehensive campaign not only to remind his countrymen of the horrors of the war, but also to bluntly inform them that Japan bears responsibility for the considerable suffering that it inflicted on others, most notably on its Asian neighbors. He is widely respected as a man of peace, but his commitment to peace comes across as far more authentic because of his willingness to recognize past mistakes by his country.
The imperial house remains Japan’s most important nationalistic symbol, and yet Emperor Akihito has repeatedly and pointedly rejected chest-thumping Japan First-style nationalism in favor of cosmopolitanism. This stance is best represented by his December 2001 comment that he feels a “kinship with Korea because the mother of Emperor Kammu was Korean.” It is a remark that he followed with a history lesson about how much culture Japan historically had borrowed from Korea, only to repay Korea in the modern period with mistreatment. Emperor Akihito may well have played a role in restraining the rise in Japan of forms of populism presently plaguing Europe and the Americas.
Confines of the Imperial Household Law
There is no question that the imperial house remains imperfect. For example, the Imperial Household Law continues to permit only males to occupy the throne. This is increasingly anachronistic in light of the remarkable public role played by Empress Michiko these past three decades, not to mention at a time when gender equality is becoming a global standard.
This vestige of paternalistic Japan will come even further to the forefront when Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the throne. Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako have one child, a daughter, Princess Aiko (b. 2001). But as the law presently stands, she is not eligible to succeed her father.
Expectations for Naruhito’s Reign
What can we expect from the next emperor? To some extent, we need to wait and see. But it is also true that Naruhito has foreshadowed some of the basic contours.
First, in recent public comments, he has repeatedly stressed the fact that, throughout Japanese history, as society has changed, so has the imperial house changed. While we can expect considerable continuity with the reign of his father, he will also go in different directions to respond to societal changes.
Naruhito has also made abundantly clear that he will continue to devote time to the issue of water. Japan does not lack for clean water, but as many as one billion individuals worldwide face a daily struggle to access clean water.
Whereas his parents consistently lent their prestige to the most vulnerable members of Japanese society, Naruhito seems intent on additionally lending his prestige to some of the most vulnerable members of global society, hopefully to effect improvements in their lives. After all, Japan is a prosperous and peaceful country, and the next emperor seems intent on reminding his countrymen of their responsibility to global society, too.
Finally, Naruhito, of late, has repeatedly stressed that he is aware that the lifestyles of the Japanese have diversified these past decades (e.g., think of the emerging LGBTQ movement in Japan), and that Japan is surely going to diversify further as more and more immigrants make Japan their home.
The next emperor seems aware that his greatest challenge may well be to continue to maintain and nurture a sense of national unity out of a much more diverse Japanese society.
Author: Kenneth Ruoff