Akihito: A Forceful Defender of Peace

John Nilsson-Wright reveals why Japan’s public has deep affection for its outgoing emperor.

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Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Former Korea Foundation Korea Fellow and Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme

Emperor Akihito. Photo: Getty Images.

Emperor Akihito. Photo: Getty Images.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito is the country’s first monarch in more than 200 years to abdicate, bringing an end to its Heisei era.

Akihito’s decision to abdicate represents a sharp break from royal tradition for the world’s oldest monarchy.

The last official abdication took place in 1817, and so when Akihito announced in 2016 his desire to step down due to old age and ill-health, immediate reaction in Japan was mixed.

For many of Japan’s conservative politicians, for whom Japan’s national identity is tied closely to the notion of an unbroken monarchical line stretching back to the 7th Century BC, abdication was seen as an anomaly, conflicting with the notion that the monarch should serve out his term for the length of his natural life.

Japan’s public has been more sympathetic, arguably focusing more on the man than the institution and recognizing the human dimension behind Akihito’s decision to step down.

The affection the Japanese public feels for the current emperor is also a response to his role as a forceful defender of the culture of peace that has dominated Japan for the post-1945 period.

Together with his wife, the Empress Michiko, the first commoner to join the royal family, and whom he married in 1959, Akihito has made a point of visiting the sites of conflict from the wartime period both at home and abroad to pay respect for fallen combatants, both foreign and domestic.

Japan’s monarchy, like royal families the world over, embodies notions of cultural tradition and national heritage.

It is a trend that is underlined in Japan by the country’s indigenous Shinto rituals and the deeply conservative character of the Imperial Household Agency, the bureaucratic institution that closely regulates the etiquette and rules influencing the emperor’s interaction with the general public.

Akihito is also emblematic of the country’s post-war modernity.

While his father, Hirohito, had been forced to renounce his divine status following the country’s defeat in 1945, Akihito was the first emperor to have an unambiguously non-divine status, serving purely as a symbol of the state and never having any political authority, a sharp contrast with the status of the pre-war emperor.

Naruhito, his son, is likely to mark a continuation of the blend of tradition and modernity that his father’s reign epitomized.

Educated both in Japan and in the UK, where he did graduate work in history at Oxford, Naruhito is a keen mountain climber and viola player, and has an interest in water policy and water conservation.

His wife Masako, who will assume the role of empress, is a former fast-track foreign ministry official who gave up her diplomatic career to marry.

Having suffered from stress-related illness for some 15 years, her ability to assume the public duties of her new role is open to question, but the soon to be emperor is a staunch defender of his wife’s well-being and is likely to remain protective of her privacy.

The transition from Akihito’s era of Heisei (meaning ‘realizing peace’) to the new era of Reiwa (meaning ‘auspicious’ or ‘beautiful’, ‘harmony’ or ‘peace’) that will start with Naruhito becoming emperor has been carefully planned for by the Liberal Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Abe.

The government will be hoping that the positive associations conveyed by the new-era name will promote a mood of stability and forward-looking collective optimism - one that the character and demeanour of the new emperor is likely to reinforce.

This article was originally published by Sky News.