National

Emperor reflects on Japan's past, future and his 'endlessly long' quest to pin down role after 30 years on throne

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Emperor Akihito said Sunday he has dedicated the past 30 years of his reign to an “endlessly long” quest to fathom out his role as the symbol of the state, expressing hopes that his successors will pick up where he left off and update the idea as they adapt to the changing times.

Looking back on the past 30 years of the Heisei Era, the Emperor also suggested Japan’s days as a complacent island country are coming to an end, noting that globalization is placing pressure on the nation to adopt a more outward-looking posture and to “sincerely” approach relations with other countries. Heisei means “achieving peace.”

The Emperor was speaking at a government-sponsored event at the National Theatre in Tokyo held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his enthronement. It also coincided with preparations for his coming abdication.

“Ever since I ascended the throne, I have spent my days praying for the peace of the country and the happiness of its people, as well as contemplating how I should behave as a symbol,” the Emperor said.

After the war, the Emperor was defined by the Constitution as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” and stripped of any political power. Under the prewar Constitution, he was deified and defined as Japan’s head of state with whom all sovereignty resided.

“The journey to figure out the idea of a symbolic emperor, as defined by the Constitution, has been endlessly long, and I hope my successors in the next eras to come will keep exploring an ideal form of this symbolic role and build on the version from this departing era,” he said.

The Emperor also commended Heisei for being the “first period in modern history where Japan did not experience war,” but at the same noted it was fraught with “unexpected challenges” such as climate change, natural disasters and a rapidly graying population. The changing landscape of society, he said, begs the question of how Japan should respond.

“As an island country, Japan has enjoyed relative advantage in cultivating its own unique culture, but amid growing moves toward globalization, I think it is being expected to open itself more to the outside, use its wisdom and power to establish its own position and sincerely work on building relationships with other countries.”

Emperor Akihito is scheduled to relinquish the throne on April 30, paving the way for his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to take over the following day. The abdication will be the first in about 200 years because Imperial successions in modern history have been preceded by an emperor’s death.

The Emperor hinted at his desire to step down early during a rare, nationally televised video message in the summer of 2016 in which he said his advanced age was interfering with his ability to carry out public duties “with my whole being.”

Addressing the crowd, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for his part, said the Emperor has fulfilled his role as a symbol of the state and the people by aligning himself closely with the public, citing the numerous trips he and Empress Michiko have taken over the years to areas ravaged by natural calamities, and giving evacuees “courage and hope.” Abe also said their official visits to 35 countries over the past 30 years contributed to “deepening Japan’s friendship with other nations.”

The ceremony, attended by about 1,100 people — ranging from lawmakers, bureaucrats, ambassadors, business executives and NGO representatives — was punctuated by musical performances to rev up the celebratory mood.

Pop singer and dancer Daichi Miura was tapped to perform “Utagoe no Hibiki” (“Resonance of the Singing Voice”), a song written by the Emperor and composed by the Empress after their first-ever visit to Okinawa in 1975, when they were the Crown Prince and Crown Princess. Miura is an Okinawa native.

Sunday also saw the government’s first use of facial recognition technology at a state-organized event to reduce waiting times and improve security.

An official said the government plans to use the system — which it claims can identify human faces with an accuracy of more than 99 percent — for large-scale Imperial events in the future, such as the enthronement ceremony in October.

The Japanese Communist Party, however, boycotted the ceremony. Keiji Kokuta, the Diet affairs chief for the JCP, told reporters Wednesday it was going to do so on the grounds that government-organized event amounted to “using the Emperor for political purposes.”

At his regular press briefing Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government is “fully prepared” for the abdication.

In fact, as part of the preparations, Abe took the highly unusual step Friday of visiting the Crown Prince at the Togu Palace for a face-to-face “explanation,” as a government official put it. Although Suga declined to disclose the details of their conversation, speculation is rife that Abe was briefing the Crown Prince on Japan’s state of affairs at home and abroad to better prepare him for his new role.

“I think it’s a matter of fact the prime minister would want to explain the situation abroad to the Crown Prince because he will be swamped with diplomatic duties the moment he becomes the Emperor,” a senior government official said on condition of anonymity.

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to visit Japan in late May, possibly becoming the first foreign leader to be granted an audience with the new Emperor.