Emperor Emeritus: Akihito’s Man-of-the-People Legacy

Written by: Riley Fink

Japan currently finds itself in a transitional period. Earlier this year, in a historic fashion, the then-current emperor Akihito was set to abdicate of his own accord and leave the throne to his son, Naruhito. When he first conveyed this desire in 2016, it sent a shockwave through Japanese society. This passing of the torch was to be the first time in centuries an emperor had abdicated the throne and required special legislation be drawn up by the government to grant the emperor’s request.

With Naruhito’s formal enthronement ceremony taking place earlier in October – and the official procession delayed until November in the wake of Typhoon Hagibis – the imperial transition is now largely complete. In the midst of the ongoing splendor of longstanding rituals, it is worth considering the legacy left by Naruhito’s predecessor and father, Akihito, and what his unprecedented reshaping of Japan’s emperorship means for the future of the country.

Born in 1933 as the eldest son of Emperor Hirohito and immediate heir-apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne, Akihito experienced firsthand the geopolitical upheaval in which Japan was a central figure. Following the Second World War, Japan’s place on the international stage shifted dramatically, as American occupation resulted in a new constitution, democratic process and redefined role for the emperor. With the Potsdam Declaration’s criticisms of the cult surrounding imperial authority heeded, no longer was the emperor heralded as a holy figure and descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The call for the elimination “for all time [of] the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest” marked a reversal of the authority that had been vested in the emperor during the Meiji Restoration. Under the new constitution, the Emperor of Japan was reclassified from a role of great power to a purely symbolic position; Akihito was the first emperor to rule fully under these new conditions from the start. In 1989, following the death of his father, Akihito became the 125th Emperor of Japan.

As Crown Prince, his marriage in 1959 to a commoner who came from a Catholic family, Michiko Shōda, made waves in the media; the near-universal adoration of the future empress by the general public influenced cultural trends. Increased usage of the character 子 (Ko) in girls’ names emulated Michiko’s own, and the popularity of tennis, a frequent pastime of the Imperial House, skyrocketed in Japan in the late 20th Century.

Akihito’s poise and grace was evident following the March 2011 triple disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown. As the nation reeled, he visited the disaster sites and met with those affected. In a hugely symbolic moment, he and then-Empress Michiko knelt down with victims, cementing themselves as a man and woman of the people, rather than gods presiding from above. His manner of putting himself on an equal level with the public became a signature trait, stunning the public when he first did so among victims of Mount Unzen’s volcanic eruption a few years after taking the throne. Truly it is times of crisis like these above all else that test a leader’s ability to unite the people. Akihito’s reign was marked by similar tragedies, like the deadly Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, both in 1995, yet his affinity with the people was powerful and no doubt functioned as a healing factor. Akihito embraced the public like no other, notably populations relegated to the margins of Japanese society, including those enduring handicaps, disease, and discrimination. It is unsurprising that approval ratings for the imperial family toward the end of his reign lied consistently between 70 and 80 percent.

The compassion of this emperor guided his diplomacy, as well. As the son of Hirohito, his place in the international community was initially anything but guaranteed. Thus, as a statesman, peace and non-confrontation acted as Akihito’s guiding principles. His reconciliation with Japan’s past foes and victims made clear how he envisioned the path forward. As he met with representatives from Jakarta to Manila to Beijing, all victims of Japan’s past conquests, it was clear his mission was to affirm Japan as a diplomatic nation of peace and heal the wartime wounds of the past. He has travelled more and met a greater number of world leaders than any of his predecessors. Expressions of regret and remorse denoted his pacifism, setting him apart from some politicians of today who double down on the incorruptible glory of Japan.

The ascension of Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne in May of 2019 literally ushered Japan into a new and unfamiliar era. Indeed, the periodization system utilized by the Japanese calendar designates each monarch’s ruling period as a distinct era in time; the current era, which commenced with Naruhito’s coronation on May 1st of 2019, is known as 令和 (Reiwa). The previous era covered the reign of Akihito from January 8th of 1989 to April 30th of 2019, and is known as 平成 (Heisei). These era names also function as the posthumous names for the emperors.

An examination of the characters which make up 令和 (Reiwa) reveals it to be a multivalent designation. The characters and name itself had to be approved by the Japanese Cabinet and win the endorsement of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. The prime minister’s socially conservative stances, and his public desire to rid Japan’s post-World War II pacifist constitution of the Article 9 “peace clause” preventing the nation from assembling a military, suggest a layered meaning. The government’s official position places the characters’ origins in a traditional Japanese poem about plum blossoms – rather than the usual Chinese literature – in which the characters were archaically used to render a meaning close to “splendid peace.” As for the government’s explanation of the precise meaning behind the characters, Abe has been quoted as saying that the name “is meant to reflect the spiritual unity of the Japanese people,” clearly alluding to the characters’ aforementioned meaning. This assertion was made despite the incongruous contemporary understandings of the characters. A cursory look at the modern connotations of the characters may suggest an almost authoritarian meaning close to “commanding harmony,” or “ordering Japan.” It is a very real possibility that Abe may be signaling his intent to restore national pride under the guise of harmony and peace, and is using the intricate meanings behind the new era name to elaborately communicate these hopes.

As Japan enters its new era, it is unknown how statesmanship will change under its new monarch. Without Akihito’s genuine opposition to unchecked nationalism and historical revisionism, one wonders if Abe, with his frequent espousing of patriotism and bodily sacrifice, will feel emboldened in this new and unfamiliar era. As Japanese politics have shifted further to the right, Naruhito has important roles to play not only in the symbolic sense but also as an arbiter of the nation meant to stand detached from political conflict. As the first emperor born in the postwar generation, it is crucial that Naruhito keep in mind the legacies of those before him. Although he has no personal connection to the war, he has nonetheless noted the imperativeness of remembering it “correctly,” an encouraging sign since, theoretically, facts are immutable. But with Naruhito now at the helm of the world’s oldest royal line, he must bear the weight of the nation’s history on his shoulders as Japan marches toward an uncertain future.