Akihito bows out, ushering in era for Japan's post-war generation

Akihito bows out, ushering in era for Japan's post-war generation
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Japan is in for a series of firsts, starting today when Akihito becomes the first emperor to abdicate in the modern era. On May 1, Akihito’s son and heir, Naruhito, will be enthroned as Japan’s first emperor born after World War II.  

It is a significant changing of the guard. Akihito was born the year Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. He lived through Japan’s staggering defeat and subsequent foreign occupation. Since succeeding his father, Hirohito, to the throne in 1989, Akihito has used his position to remind domestic and foreign audiences of the preciousness of peace and the catastrophe of war. He warns of an encroaching global amnesia as survivors of the last world war die away and younger politicians and voters, blissfully inexperienced in total war, take over.  

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Prominent among these younger leaders is Japan’s prime minister and other public face, Abe Shinzō. Born in 1954, Abe is too young to have any memory of war; Japan, unlike the United States, has not waged another since World War II. Japan’s postwar constitution, drafted by Americans, forbids it. Instead, Abe nurses memories of his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, a member of Tōjō Hideki’s cabinet. Americans arrested both men as war criminals in 1945. In 1948,Tōjō was executed and Kishi released. Kishi later reentered politics, and to the horror of Japan’s left, became prime minister in 1957.

His grandson and 21st century successor, Abe Shinzō, likewise horrifies Japan’s left — not least because he remembers his grandfather Kishi as a “sincere statesmen” whose wartime policies and imperial ambitions have been unjustly maligned. Abe has vowed to “normalize” Japan by reasserting Japan’s capacity to make war.  

Given his father’s pacifistic influence, crown prince Naruhito is unlikely to feel similar nostalgia for the vast wartime empire of his grandfather, Hirohito. But Naruhito, born in 1960, like Abe is a member of a post-war generation with no living memory of militarism or the slaughter and starvation it inflicted at home and abroad. Japan’s new emperor will not be a hawk, yet he may not be as vigilant as his father against a return to war as a “normal” operation of political power and ambition.  

Centuries ago, when Japan’s imperial family held real power, emperors often “retired” at an early age to escape onerous ritual responsibilities and dedicate their time to policy, poetry and other palace priorities. Akihito’s abdication entails, by contrast, a retreat from public life spurred by advanced age and declining health. Significantly, Akihito had to ask his government’s permission to abdicate. There was no modern precedent or legal process in place. It has taken nearly two years to fulfill Akihito’s wish. In granting it, Abe and his conservative allies present themselves as the emperor’s loyal servants, a political posture that still carries cachet.  

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In reality, it is the emperor who serves and not the other way around. Since the revolution that established Japan as a nation-state in 1868, Japanese statesmen have flaunted one emperor after another as a legitimating puppet-patriarch of ambiguous divinity meant to inspire loyalty but not determine policy. After World War II, Americans used Hirohito in much the same way, protecting him from prosecution and making him the public face of a suddenly pro-American Japan. Japan’s American-authored constitution denies the emperor any decision-making authority and defines him as a “symbol of the state and the unity of the people.”

It is easy to love such a monarch. Easy for a nation’s government to bask in the reflected glow of such unifying, uncritical love. Some Japanese deplore the “emperor system” and blame the United States for cynically preserving and manipulating it after the war. But a majority support the emperor, and the emperor-to-be. They seek solace from geopolitical instability and partisan power-grubbing in an emperor-centered national identity that seems innocent and pure.  

But the emperor system is not innocent. Over the past 20 years, political leaders in Tokyo have been engineering mechanisms to elicit reverence for the emperor and, through him, the state that actually rules. School teachers and students are under intense pressure at public events to stand, bow to the rising sun flag, and in unison sing, “Kimigayo.” Those who sing its succinct lyrics wish their sovereign an eternal reign. This ritual, compulsory singing inculcates a sense that those who sing are not free and sovereign citizens but mere subjects pledging unending loyalty.  

In 1999, Japan’s legislature made this antidemocratic song Japan’s national anthem. When asked his opinion about the law, Akihito declined to comment. Since then, in 2004 and 2012, Japan’s Supreme Court has waved away legal challenges on the grounds that constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought and action safeguard only private, unenunciated thoughts. Japan’s government is empowered once again to mandate imperial obeisance from the masses. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party proposes to amend Japan’s constitution to include a duty to honor the anthem and flag.

Most Japanese people think of this year as 2019; they use the globalized Gregorian calendar on an everyday basis. Yet Japan’s government still uses a calendrical system that counts time from the ascension of an emperor. To each reign they assign a name — the reign of Akihito they dubbed Heisei, “achieving peace.” The law designating “Kimigayo” as the anthem was thus officially promulgated in “the 11th year of the reign of Heisei,” which ends today. Wednesday begins the Reiwa era.  

Imperial fundamentalists clock Japanese history at 2,679 years of reign by an unbroken line appointed to rule on earth by the goddess of the sun, who also is progenitrix of all emperors. For the first time in history, Japan’s government this year derived a reign name from classical Japanese rather than Chinese sources. The move signals Abe’s increasingly muscular rejection of Chinese influence in Japanese and global affairs.  

But what does Reiwa mean? The term is intuitively opaque. Abe’s government proposes we understand it as “beautiful harmony.” Yet the character pronounced rei more often denotes “command” than “beauty.” From a certain point of view, there may be no distinction.  

Democracy and pluralism are on the defensive around the world. A new mass war in Asia is not out of the question. Let the era of command harmony begin.

Kristin Roebuck is an assistant professor and the Howard Milstein Faculty Fellow at Cornell University. A historian of modern Japan, she researches Japanese international relations and is drafting a book manuscript entitled, “Japan Reborn: Race and the Family of Nations after World War II.”