How Emperor Akihito Brought Japan Into the Future
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The emperor atoned for his father’s violent legacy to find a new — and lasting — role for the throne.
In the shrinking global community of royal families, the Japanese Chrysanthemum Throne stands out as the oldest continuing monarchy in the world — and one of the most volatile in modern history. Citing his declining health, 85-year-old Emperor Akihito, whose reign began in 1989 upon the death of his father, Hirohito, steps down on April 30 in favor of his son Naruhito, the first abdication of the Japanese throne since 1817. While his willful decision to abdicate is remarkable, there is little about Akihito’s life that has precedent in Japanese history.
The story of the Japanese monarchy as we know it today begins in the 19th century when the Meiji Restoration brought an end to the Samurai-led feudal system of Japan in favor of a centralized Western style of governance. That restored a greater share of power to the emperor, a position that had for centuries been a mere figurehead occupation. According to John Dower, professor emeritus of Japanese History at MIT, Japan’s Meiji-era reformers “noted that powerful Western nations used God as a centralizing and legitimizing mystique — and that, lacking such a religious pivot, Japan could make the emperor and imperial dynasty play essentially the same role.” Japanese nationalists ultimately chose to turn to myth, placing the foundation of Japan at 660 B.C. by Jimmu — supposedly a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess — an invented tradition that has today become widely accepted as fact.
Rejecting his father’s reclusive and purely ceremonial style of rule, Akihito worked within his constitutional limits to heal the wounds of the Second World War both within Japan and with its former enemies.
As the 20th century unfolded, Japan aggressively expanded in the name of its divine emperors, acquiring a vast overseas empire encompassing Korea, Taiwan, Sakhalin and Manchuria. Akihito’s father, Hirohito, whose rule began in 1926, oversaw Japan’s most violent phase of expansion — leading Japan into World War II, when the Japanese Empire expanded even further to occupy an area stretching from Burma to the Aleutian Islands before collapsing in the face of a Soviet declaration of war and American nuclear weapons. The disastrous war not only decimated the Japanese population, landscape and economy but also saw Japan committing egregious war crimes against the nations that it had occupied, particularly China, Korea and the Philippines. Akihito’s father gave his tacit approval to Japanese aggression during the conflict, though he was never tried for his crimes — nor did he ever apologize for them. When the United States began its seven-year occupation of Japan in 1945, the role of the emperor was dramatically changed again.
While many expected him to abdicate, Hirohito’s continued rule was ensured by the American occupational authorities, who, in the interest of stabilizing Japanese society in order to fight communist influence, saw the monarchy as a useful tool to rebuild Japan. Provisions were made instead for Hirohito to transition into a British-style figurehead monarch, provided he give up his claim of divinity, with no authority to make decisions on matters of governance. With the blame for Japanese war crimes firmly placed elsewhere, Hirohito continued to rule until his death in 1989 at age 87, making frequent public appearances and continuing his passion for marine biology research. The presence of such a controversial figure on the throne caused significant disquiet at home and abroad — and with Hirohito’s tight-lipped policy in regard to both his own conduct as well as Japan’s during the war, Japanese relations with its neighbors failed to heal.
Akihito, already in his 50s by the time his rule began, emerged as what Dower describes as “one of the most sincere and influential Japanese voices” endorsing peace and democracy in a postwar world. Rejecting his father’s reclusive and purely ceremonial style of rule, Akihito worked within his constitutional limits to heal the wounds of the Second World War both within Japan and with its former enemies. Following an apology made just months after his, in 1992, Akihito became the first Japanese emperor to visit China — a visit in which he stressed his revulsion at the violence that Japan inflicted upon China in the name of his father. Akihito made similar conciliatory gestures toward Korea as well, apologizing for Japan’s long colonial occupation of Korea and even acknowledging the existence of Korean heritage in the Japanese imperial family, an extremely taboo subject in nationalist Japan.
Further significant conciliatory visits were made in 2005 to Saipan, an American overseas territory, and the Philippines in 2016. During every visit, Akihito has never shied away from using his apologetic language — a stance that’s earned him the ire of conservative critics in Japan, who believe Japan has no need to apologize for its wartime conduct. Akihito’s apologies have also been met with bemusement in countries like the United Kingdom, where former British WWII POWs famously turned their backs on him during a visit, or South Korea, which recently referred to Akihito as merely “the son of the main culprit of war crimes.”
His critics aside, Akihito’s remarkable reign will be remembered fondly by many in Japan — which, being the country with the most centenarians in the world, has a comparatively large population that still remembers the horrors of the World War II. That Naruhito, 59, will inherit a Japan that is more at ease with its legacy both at home and with the global community is in large part thanks to the efforts of his father.
Still, it is hard to foresee what sort of role he will be able to play in a rapidly changing Japan. While the emperor’s role of a divine ruler is long over, according to Dower, “to Prime Minister Abe and his conservative cohort, the emperor is still the linchpin to maintaining a mystique of racial purity, paternalism and a unique sort of blood nationalism.” Naruhito’s role as an emperor may now be ceremonial, but it still carries great responsibility.