High expectations for a new imperial dawn
Can Japan carry on its historical legacy while embracing the opportunities of the 21st century? That will be the question asked by many in Japan as Emperor Naruhito celebrates his enthronement this week, as part of the many ceremonies to herald the new Reiwa era. As Japan looks forward to securing its position as a political as well as an economic force in Asia and beyond, a cloud of anxiety continues to hang over the country amid worries about whether its best days are already behind it. How the new emperor can symbolize continuity on the one hand while encouraging a fresh approach to public engagement on the other may be seen as a reflection of Japan’s comfort with and hopes for the 21st century.
Naruhito has succeeded to an imperial lineage that is one of the oldest in the world, and is greatly respected within Japan. As a constitutional monarch, he has no political power as such, and the institution is tightly bound by rules as much as tradition. Yet already he has bucked the trend, not least by succeeding the throne in an orderly manner, as his father Emperor Akihito resigned after three decades, which was a first in nearly two centuries. More notable is the fact that he married Masako Owada, a Harvard and Oxford-educated career diplomat, without being intimidated by her intellect or professional ambition. Japan continues to score poorly on the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings, coming in at 110th place in 2018. Although there is gender parity in college enrollment and women often perform better academically, female corporate executives and political leaders remain few and far between.
Then there is the fact that Naruhito and Empress Masako struggled with infertility and have only one daughter, who cannot accede to the Chrysanthemum Throne as a female. That, in turn, has been a source of mental anguish for the empress, which has limited her public appearances over the past two decades.
In short, in spite of their privileged status, the imperial family has had its own challenges and the question now is whether they can champion some key causes that Japan will be facing during Naruhito’s reign. The emperor has shown keen interest in environmental issues, including water resources, since his student days, which would dovetail with the Japanese government’s own efforts to promote policies to combat climate change. It would certainly be a politically safe cause to support from Japan’s perspective.
The new imperial couple is likely to want to further Emperor Akihito’s legacy as a conduit for reconciliation
But there are also more politically sensitive yet equally pressing issues that could benefit from imperial support. Akihito certainly did not shy away from taking a more conciliatory approach to reflecting on Japan’s aggressions in the first half of the 20th century. He became the first emperor to visit China in 1992, and expressed his “deep remorse” over Japan’s hostilities during occupation and the Second World War. The son of wartime Emperor Hirohito did not shy away from sharing his hopes for peace and reconciliation across former Japan-occupied Asia, even under the more hawkish administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Naruhito may be inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps, calling for greater empathy and dialogue between former enemies. The fact that South Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon will be attending enthronement festivities in spite of ongoing tensions between Tokyo and Seoul is already an auspicious sign of the emperor playing a role in diplomatic relations.
Certainly, when it comes to being respectful of tradition and decorum, paying homage to the imperial family is at the top of the list. In return, one of the most respectful overtures Japan can make is to secure the commitment of the emperor. Given Empress Masako’s personal training as a professional diplomat, the new imperial couple is likely to want to further Akihito’s legacy as a conduit for reconciliation at a time when the politicization of historical memory is intensifying worldwide. There are, however, numerous hurdles both within and outside of Japan’s borders, not least opposition from the Japanese government itself. There is also the possibility of alienating the Japanese public by dwelling too much on Japan’s wartime past, in addition to facing protests from neighboring Asian nations.
Another pressing issue that the new emperor could embrace together with Empress Masako is female empowerment. The fact that their daughter, Princess Aiko, will not be able to inherit the throne, which can only be passed on to male heirs, hardly helps Japan promote gender equality. Overtures to change the constitution so that female offspring could be in the line of succession were scrapped following the birth of Prince Hisahito, the son of Naruhito’s younger brother, Prince Akishino. But even without pushing for such a highly politically charged issue, the imperial couple could highlight the achievement of women in public service and encourage more women to take on leadership roles in all sectors.
As Japan grapples with rapidly changing realities across the globe, the imperial family can play an active role in identifying and prioritizing issues. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako can certainly bring attention to people and places that may be otherwise ignored, simply by engaging and showing up. The challenge for the imperial couple will be to be able to go beyond the highly ritualized ceremonial commitments and find their own way to connect with the people of Japan and elevate the country’s ability to connect with the world.
• Shihoko Goto is the Deputy Director for Geoeconomics and Senior Associate for Northeast Asia with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, a Washington DC-based think tank.