Naruhito’s enthronement puts Japanese emperor’s role in focus

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shouts a banzai cheer for Emperor Naruhito during the enthronement ceremony the emperor officially proclaimed his ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Tuesday, October 22, 2019. (AFP).
Updated 22 October 2019

Naruhito’s enthronement puts Japanese emperor’s role in focus

  • Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement comes nearly six months after his ascent to the Chrysanthemum Throne
  • Naruhito becomes Japan’s 126th emperor in a line said to stretch back more than 2,600 years

TOKYO: With his formal enthronement as Japan’s 126th emperor, in a line said to stretch back more than 2,600 years, Naruhito takes on a role that has changed almost beyond recognition from its mythological origins.

Recent decades have seen the Japanese emperor’s role recast in new ways. Naruhito, who ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1 this year, has already signaled that he will continue reshaping the emperor’s role.

He has called for “new royal duties” to fit modern times, and said he hopes — like his father, current Emperor Emeritus Akihito — to be “close to the people.”

Tradition holds that Japanese emperors are descended from legendary sun goddess Amaterasu, who imparted the “three treasures” of a mirror, sword and jewels that are a key part of the imperial regalia.

In keeping with their mythological status, the “treasures” are kept from public sight, and were expected to remain hidden even when handed to Naruhito during the enthronement ceremony on Oct. 22.

In the early years of Japan’s imperial history, emperors were military commanders from powerful families who controlled wealthy settlements.

The role of the emperor in governing, however, has varied. Some, like Emperor Tenmu in the seventh century, wielded enormous power.

Dubbed “king of kings” by imperial enthusiasts, Tenmu shaped the political system based on ancient law and cemented imperial power.

But many other emperors served as little more than rubber stamps for samurai warriors or ambitious officials from leading families.

Down the ages, emperors have played a key role in performing the rites of Japan’s native Shinto religion, which venerates deities found in nature.

In the late 1860s, reformists brought in an era of rapid change that turned Japan from a rural backwater into a world power.

Compared to the titular heads of state that had come before, the new Emperor Meiji — great-grandfather of Akihito — wielded significant power.

Defined as “sacred and inviolable,” the emperor was now a father figure to be served and obeyed by his family: The state.

That ideological framework was used by nationalists in the military and government to lead the country into conflict during World War II.

When Akihito was born in 1933, the role he was expected to inherit came with full sovereign powers, including dissolving Parliament, issuing decrees and commanding the armed forces.

All that ended with Japan’s defeat in World War II. Akihito, then the crown prince, listened in tears on Aug. 15, 1945, as his father, wartime Emperor Hirohito, made an unprecedented radio address to announce the shock loss.

The fate of the imperial household hung in the balance, with some in favor of dissolving the monarchy because of its symbolic war role.

But US Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led the post-war occupation of Japan, opted to preserve the dynasty while greatly curbing its power, effectively turning the emperor into a figurehead.

After World War II, an imperial rescript clarified that the emperor should not be regarded as divine, but performing prayers for a successful harvest and national peace is still considered one of his key responsibilities.

Akihito embraced the revised role when he took the throne in 1989, and focused on remolding the monarchy for a democratic age.

On top of religious and formal duties such as attending ceremonies and receiving foreign guests, he advocated for peace.

Akihito also rejected nationalism, expressed “deep remorse” over Japan’s past, and called for history to be remembered rather than revised.

As emperor, he stepped beyond his religious remit to offer not just prayers, but also comfort to survivors of Japan’s natural disasters.

He stunned the nation in 1991 when he rolled up his sleeves and took off his shoes in a shelter to kneel before survivors of a volcanic eruption.

His more modern approach was once seen as risky, said Yuji Otabe, history professor at Shizuoka University of Welfare.

“It was a sort of gamble,” Otabe said. “Such an act would have been impossible in the past because the emperor was regarded as god.”

But the changes helped cement Akihito’s popularity, with the vast majority of Japanese saying they have “positive feelings” or “respect” for him.

“In one era emperors were like popes, and in another they were like czars. Now the emperor’s role can be said to be similar to kings,” said Asao Kure, associate professor at Kyoto Sangyo University. “The roles of the emperor have mirrored each era of the country.”

Akihito said defining his position as emperor had been an “endless” process. On April 30 this year, he bequeathed that process to Naruhito when he abdicated, becoming the first Japanese emperor to do so since 1817.


Bangladesh army chief begins four-day historic visit to Myanmar

Updated 09 December 2019

Bangladesh army chief begins four-day historic visit to Myanmar

  • Gen. Ahmed expected to discuss issue of Rohingya repatriation 

DHAKA: Bangladesh’s top commander, Gen. Aziz Ahmed, began his four-day visit to Myanmar on Sunday amid uncertainty surrounding the repatriation of more than 1 million Rohingya refugees from the country.

He is expected to hold talks with the deputy chief of Myanmar’s armed forces and its army chief, Vice-Senior Gen. Soe Win, a statement issued by the Inter Services Public Relations Department said.

“You know that the army plays a very important role in Myanmar. Under such circumstances, if our army chief visits the country, it will be good for us. And through this, another line of negotiation will open. We welcome this,” A K Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, told reporters in Dhaka in the last week of November when news of Ahmed’s visit broke out.

“(The visit) will not go against us. It will go in our favour. Myanmar is not our enemy. It is our friend,” he added.

Top among the issues to be discussed are training programs, goodwill visits, increasing mutual cooperation and the repatriation of forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens from Bangladesh. 

Ahmed is visiting Myanmar at a time when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is set to begin proceedings against Myanmar on Tuesday over accusations of genocide against the Rohingya.

However, authorities in Bangladesh considered the visit as a “new line of communication” in a bid to facilitate the Rohingya repatriation.

“We want to resolve problems through negotiations. It is Myanmar that has created the Rohingya crisis. Its solution also depends on Myanmar. We are conducting our activities in different ways so that the Rohingya people can go back home and live in a dignified manner,” Momen said.

Experts, however, were divided over the army chief’s visit to Myanmar. 

Helal Morshed, a retired army officer, said that it is a “prefixed visit,” so there is no chance to tag it with the ICJ hearing.  

“Since the army plays an important role in Myanmar politics, the army chief knows the ground realities more than anyone. I think both the army chiefs will discuss the Rohingya repatriation issue in a pragmatic way,” Morshed told Arab News, adding that Myanmar could also “contribute politically” in finding a solution to the crisis.  

Ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmad, chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, said that Bangladesh is engaged with a “continuous diplomatic and military relationship” with Myanmar despite the Rohingya refugee crisis.  

“The army chief’s visit will also help us to assert and clear out our opinions over the Rohingya repatriation issues,” Ahmad told Arab News. 

He added that the visit could also help both the countries resolve the border crisis which involves human trafficking and drug smuggling.  

“Human trafficking, drug smuggling and Rohingya refugees all became interrelated issue at this moment,” Ahmed said, adding that it is true that a few members of the Myanmar army “are responsible for the atrocities on Rohingyas, but the army as a whole cannot be blamed for this.”

Another veteran diplomat, requesting anonymity, said: “It would be great if Bangladesh would defer its army chief’s visit to Myanmar by one week.”

He said that in order to support Bangladesh, all 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have lodged an appeal at the ICJ and “Myanmar should not do anything which may weaken the OIC’s move.

“Now, Myanmar may claim that both the countries are engaged in a bilateral relationship at the military level too. In this context, Myanmar can say that there is nothing wrong.”

Bangladesh’s former army chief Gen. Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan visited Myanmar in 2014 to discuss issues including trans-border crimes and human trafficking between the two countries.

Since August 2017, in the wake of military attacks, thousands of Rohingya fled their homeland Rakhine in Myanmar and took shelter in Bangladesh’s Cox's Bazar. Hundreds have died since.

The UN has described the crisis as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.