By Shinichi Kitaoka / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunHistory shows that when a new emperor ascends the throne, Japanese society often transforms itself beyond anyone’s expectations. What’s more, this change occurs in tandem with a transformation in the way emperors behave during their reigns. I believe this flexibility has ensured the remarkable longevity of the Imperial system.
Japan has experienced two major changes in modern history.
First, Emperor Meiji was enthroned in January 1867 at the age of 14. Less than a year later, the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed, bringing an end to the feudal period and ushering in the restoration of Imperial rule. During the Meiji era, Japan rapidly developed as a modern state far beyond anyone’s expectations. Emperor Meiji transformed himself into a monarch embodying both tradition and a modern civilization.
Second, Emperor Showa visited Europe for the first time in 1921 while crown prince and upon returning from the overseas tour six months later, became regent due to the illness of his father, Emperor Taisho, effectively starting the Showa era. He formally acceded to the throne in 1926. Emperor Showa reigned through three completely different periods — the rise of party politics, retroactively called “Taisho democracy” that was forcibly ended in 1931; the military domination of government that ended with the years of war; and finally the post-World War II years of rehabilitation and development. During the second phase, Emperor Showa suffered extreme distress, as he was unable to prevent the country from going to war.
Following Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945, Emperor Showa had to be subordinate to the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers that occupied this country until 1952. During the Occupation, the current Constitution of Japan was established with a sea change in the role of the emperor from “the head of the Empire, combining in himself the rights of sovereignty” to “the symbol of the State and the unity of the People.” Emperor Showa willingly accepted the transformation of his role and devoted himself to postwar reconstruction.
Emperor Showa’s stormy path
During the process from the 1945 surrender to the signing of the Treaty of Peace in San Francisco in 1951 and the recovery of independence the following year, Emperor Showa is widely known to have wanted to abdicate. The Allied Powers did not hold him accountable for the war, but he nevertheless felt acutely that he was obliged to bear outward and moral responsibility for it and made his closest aides aware of his intention to relinquish his Imperial position.
If Emperor Showa had actually abdicated, there would have been an explosion of both anti-American sentiment and criticism of occupation policies among the Japanese population. This tumult would then have escalated to the division of Japan, impeding the country’s postwar reconstruction and development.
No one, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allied Powers, wanted Emperor Showa to abdicate. MacArthur is said to have been looking forward to returning home to run for the presidency by finishing the occupation of Japan as early as possible. To that end, it was indispensable for the U.S. Army general to make the occupation go smoothly by retaining the Imperial system and seeking to be on good terms with the monarch.
Reflecting MacArthur’s political ambitions, the Occupation forces were required to prove that they had thoroughly transformed Japan. The current Constitution was one of the transformation goals pursued by the GHQ. The supreme law was enacted in May 1947, less than two years after the end of the war, with Article 1 defining the role of the emperor as the symbol of the state and its unity, which was actually relevant to Japan’s traditions and well thought-out.
Emperor Showa continued to give more importance to close relations with the United States than anything else. He indicated his support for the continued stationing of U.S. troops in the country, not only for U.S. interests but also for the security of Japan.
In 1964, Emperor Showa participated in the internationally televised opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, welcoming athletes and sports officials from more than 90 countries. In 1971, he toured several European countries, including some that had been Japan’s enemies in World War II, such as Britain where he paid a state visit and the Netherlands where he made a friendship or unofficial visit. In Amsterdam, Dutch demonstrators staged a violent protest against his visit, burning Japanese paper flags.
In 1975, he paid a state visit to the United States, where speaking in a gentle yet august voice during a White House banquet, he said World War II was “the most unfortunate war, which I deeply deplore.” He thus contributed to overcoming Japan’s biggest mistake of the past — the war with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.
Strong support for Emperor Emeritus
When the Emperor Emeritus was enthroned as the emperor of the Heisei era in 1989, few people had any idea what kind of emperor he would become. However, the Japanese people soon began frequently seeing him at disaster sites, accompanied by the then Empress, who was the first commoner to marry an heir to the Japanese throne. The Imperial couple visited many areas to speak intimately to disaster victims and encourage them while sitting knee to knee with them. For many Japanese, the couple’s presence in various disaster-stricken areas was an unforgettable sight of the Heisei era. It is therefore no wonder that the Imperial system is now enjoying an unprecedentedly high level of public support.
During the Heisei era, the Emperor Emeritus toured many battlefields of World War II, including China — where he visited in 1992 — as well as Saipan, Palau and the Philippines. He has also been to Okinawa, the only World War II battlefield in Japan, on 11 occasions, including visits he made when he was crown prince.
As president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), I am grateful to the Emperor Emeritus and the Empress Emerita for having granted the agency’s Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers and other JICA cooperation personnel audiences with the Imperial couple both in Japan and abroad. JICA members contribute to the development of developing countries, often working in locations without water and electricity. They have been motivated further by the Imperial couple’s words of encouragement.
Emperor as symbol of new Japan
Now we would like to know what kind of role the newly enthroned Emperor will assume.
First of all, the Japanese people hope the Emperor will stand with them and pray for their well-being. That is exactly in line with what the Imperial family did from generation to generation — the tradition the Emperor Emeritus and the Empress Emerita have reinstated.
That said, I think the Emperor of the Reiwa era should not hesitate to behave in a way that reflects the changes of the times.
Toshimichi Okubo, one of the top government leaders in the early years of the Meiji era, thought the top priority for the new government that emerged with the restoration of Imperial rule would be to relocate the country’s capital from Kyoto. The first candidate was Osaka, but Tokyo was eventually chosen. At the time, Okubo believed it would be impossible for the new government and its people to adapt to the new age as long as they opted to stay in Kyoto and knew nothing else but a narrow place like the Kyoto Imperial Palace and stuck to centuries-old traditions.
In any age, new things are hardly accepted. When Emperor Showa was planning to make his first visit to Europe as the crown prince, many people were opposed because there was no precedent. When the Emperor Emeritus was crown prince and chose his fiancée, some people opposed their marriage, saying there was no previous case of accepting a commoner as a crown princess. Likewise, the Empress of the Reiwa era is said to have experienced many difficulties since joining the Imperial family.
No tradition can be preserved just by trying to maintain its current form. The Imperial system cannot be upheld if it fails to eliminate traditions that do not suit today’s environment. What should be done in this connection is to minutely scrutinize the existing and future circumstances surrounding Japan.
Efforts as first-rate country
The Heisei era coincided with decades full of hardships and challenges. Japan’s gross domestic product used to account for nearly 17 percent of the global GDP. Now, its global share has dwindled to about a third of its highest level. During the Heisei era, the government’s accumulated debt kept swelling while the number of children in the country continued to shrink. Despite all such headwinds, the country’s social stability remains undisturbed thanks largely to the Emperor Emeritus and the Empress Emerita.
Compared with the rest of the world, most Japanese still continue to live a comfortable life. But we need to ask if such a situation can be sustained indefinitely. Japan is now slipping from the club of first-rate countries. The country still relies on the frameworks for dealing with external affairs and domestic politics that used to work during the Cold War. Those outdated systems are no longer effective in today’s fast-changing world. We have to face this fact squarely and resolve to struggle again from scratch to reemerge as a first-rate country.
Japan has already embarked on an irreversible, though not sufficient, process of social transformation, such as the socio-economic empowerment of women, work-style reform and the expanded acceptance of foreign human resources. Further, Japan has to serve as a global pillar of international cooperation now that the United States and some other major countries have become interested in prioritizing their own interests. One example is the launch of the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement by the region’s 11 countries, including Japan but excluding the United States, which has withdrawn from the original TPP.
The Emperor of the Reiwa era is expected to assume the role of being the symbol of national unity in the new era. He studied at Merton College, Oxford, and has a passion for water-related issues that stemmed from his research of the history of water transport. In many developing countries, water is the core of sustainable development. The Empress studied at Harvard University and the University of Tokyo and worked as a diplomat, during which time she attended Balliol College, Oxford, before marrying the Emperor when he was crown prince. Indeed, the Emperor and the Empress have careers that are suitable for the new direction Japan aims to take.
I hope that the Emperor will be a symbol of Japan, which is now making fresh efforts to revamp itself as a first-rate country, and continuously pray for the happiness of the Japanese people. At the same time, I also hope that he will show no hesitation in supporting transformations and remain an emperor grounded in the Meiji-era enterprising spirit that led to the opening of the country, an Imperial approach that is suitable for Japan and will proactively contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world. I sincerely hope and believe this will be so.
In the meantime, it is important for the government and the people to find a lasting solution to realize a stable line of succession to the throne. At present, three members of the Imperial family are eligible under the Imperial House Law to be in the male-only line, but only one of them is aged under 50. I hope the Imperial House Law will be reexamined as soon as possible to stabilize the line of Imperial succession.
Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kitaoka is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, specializing in Japanese political and diplomatic history. He is also president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency. He was Japan’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2004-06. He serves or has served on a variety of government panels, including as chair of the council set up by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2018 to establish a “Long-Term Growth Strategy under the Paris Agreement,” deputy chair of the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security in 2013-14 and deputy chair of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century.Speech