Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 26, 2019
Emperor Akihito is leaving behind a very important legacy for his successor, Naruhito.
Japan on the threshold of a new era

Japan is on the threshold of a new era. The present Emperor of Japan, Akihito, is formally abdicating on 30 April to make way for his eldest son Crown Prince Naruhito to ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne on 1 May. This is the first time in 200 years that an imperial abdication takes place in Japan and it is a unique occasion. This will formally end the Heisei era which covers the years from 1989 till 30 April this year.

The transition from the Heisei to the new Reiwa era is a significant landmark in the Japanese post-war history and politics. The abdicating Emperor Akihito has left an indelible mark on the Japanese society, and his legacy has set a new benchmark for his successor. Unlike Naruhito, Akihito had vivid memories of the sufferings that Japan and its citizens underwent during the Second World War. Having been born in 1934, he was a bridge between the pre-war and post war periods of Japan. During the war, he had to take shelter outside Tokyo and when he returned to Tokyo at the end of the War, he found the city in utter ruins. Though he was only eleven years old at the time of Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, he could understand the deep trauma that gripped the nation.

One could cite two developments during the early Allied Occupation period (1945-52) that had a great impact on the emperor system in general and on the young Crown Prince in particular. The first one relates to the policy adopted by the Allied Occupation authorities under General Douglas MacArthur on the continuance of the Emperor system itself. Opinion among the victorious Allies was sharply divided on the issue. But from the beginning, MacArthur was quite interested in retaining the system as a symbol of national unity. He wanted a “humanised emperor” system around which the country could rally. He adopted several measures including the new 1947 Constitution to rid the Emperor of the divine aura that had kept him away from the Japanese people for decades. Second, the Allied authorities also paid special attention to the need for nurturing the young Akihito’s personality in a liberal atmosphere and engaged an American tutor Elizabeth Gray Vining to teach him English language and Western culture. Lady Vining had a key role in moulding the young Akihito’s personality at a critical stage in his life.

Akihito ascended to the throne in 1989 at the age of 55 and was the first to do so as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” as stated in Japan’s post-war 1947 Constitution. During the 30 years of his reign, he strictly adhered to his role as defined by the Constitution, which clearly states, “The Emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for in this Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government.”

Despite the limitations imposed by the Constitution, Emperor Akihito will be remembered for his legacy in three or four spheres. First, in his own quiet and dignified way, he sought to redefine the role of the Emperor by bridging the gap between the throne and the people. In that sense, many in Japan consider him as “the people’s Emperor.” His own marriage with Michiko Shoda, a commoner, whom he met at a tennis court, was an unprecedented break with a long-time rigid tradition that permitted royal marriages only within a small circle of privileged families. Following in his footsteps, his two sons are also married to commoners.

Second, his strong desire to connect with the Japanese people took him to all 47 prefectures of the country. During the Heisei years, Japan passed through several natural disasters such as the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, 1995. Both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the disaster area and tried to bring relief and comfort to the victims. When in 2011, the devastating triple tragedy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident occurred in Fukushima, Emperor Akihito took the unusual step of directly addressing the nation on the gravity of the tragedy. His deep concern about the increasing number of victims at once established a strong rapport with the people. Similarly, when the imperial couple visited Kumamoto prefecture following a major earthquake in 2016, the victims could relate to them with enthusiasm.

Similarly, Emperor Akihito understood some of the legitimate grievances of the people of Okinawa prefecture which hosts about 70% of the US bases and facilities. Both he and Empress Michiko visited the Islands 14 times. Understanding the intensity of their decades-old grievances, he even broke the tradition in 1996 by speaking up for the Okinawans. He said, “I hope that the Okinawa problem will be thoroughly discussed by the Japanese and US governments and that a pathway will open to a solution that can bring happiness to its citizens.”

Third, Emperor Akihito was deeply committed to peace and often expressed his remorse at the pre-war Japanese military activities in various parts of Asia. For instance, in 2015, at the time of observing the 70th year of Japan’s surrender, Emperor Akihito stated candidly that it was important for Japan to reflect on its aggression in other parts of Asia before and during the Second World War. He stressed the importance for Japan to “study and learn from history of the war starting from the Manchurian Incident.” This message of the Emperor was considered by many as more forthright than that of Prime Minister Abe. Emperor Akihito visited several Asian countries, including China, the Philippines, the Pacific Island nations of Palau and Saipan to pay his homage to all those who died in the Second World War.

Indians would fondly recall the visit made by the Imperial couple in 2013 which gave a great impetus to the evolving bilateral partnership.

Fourth, a strong votary of Japan’s post-war pacifism. Akihito is reported to be somewhat wary of certain security related legislative measures taken by Prime Minister Abe. There were reports that he had serious reservations about Japan’s right to collective self-defence strongly pushed by Prime Minister Abe.

Emperor Akihito is leaving behind a very important legacy for his successor, Naruhito. He was born in 1960 and as such he has no direct experiences of the war years. On the contrary, he grew up in the atmosphere of post-war economic prosperity and had his education in England. Recently, on the occasion of his 59th birthday, he expressed his determination to continue the legacy of his parents and stressed, “I would like to pursue what is required of the Imperial family in accordance with the changing times.”

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K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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