Among the hundreds of recent articles about the impending end of the Heisei Era was one Asahi Shimbun opinion piece by Yukiya Chikashige, who has covered the Imperial family for the past 30 years. He wrote that women’s weekly magazines invented the modern image of the Emperor and Empress starting in 1958, when the publication he works for, Josei Jishin, was launched during the “Michiko boom.”

It would be a year before Michiko Shoda became the first commoner to marry a future emperor and, initially, says Chikashige, Josei Jishin didn’t devote many column inches to her. However, sales of the fledgling magazine were poor, so the editors decided to devote substantial resources to the Empress. Circulation subsequently increased and other women’s weeklies followed suit.

What was different about the weeklies’ coverage was their focus on the private lives of the Empress and the Imperial family, purposely avoiding matters such as religion and the ideology of the Imperial system. They concentrated on how the Empress raised her children and spent her leisure time. The consequence of this kind of coverage was to make Empress Michiko and Emperor Akihito representative of the ideal postwar lifestyle, which was much more Western than what the average Japanese person was familiar with. Previously, the Imperial family was an object of reverence and mystery. It was now an aspirational archetype.

By the time the Emperor ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, he and the Empress were approachable, at least as an idea. They were used to being watched and seemed resigned to this development, maybe even content with it. The public was “generous” with its feelings toward the couple, says Chikashige, even if it still felt beneath all the pomp and pageantry. The Emperor and Empress were thus “above criticism,” in Chikashige’s words. This kind of coverage, pioneered by the women’s weeklies, was eventually adopted by the mainstream press.

Chikashige’s analysis is important to our understanding of Emperor Akihito as the first emperor who wholeheartedly took on the role of the people’s “symbol” as defined in the postwar Constitution. His father, Emperor Showa, was presumably born a deity and never completely warmed to this more prosaic job description. Emperor Akihito embraced it, according to a recent NHK documentary. In fact, his entire reign has been an exploration of how to act as a symbol, a process he said was never-ending, even for future emperors.

NHK talked to active and retired members of the Imperial Household Agency about their dealings with the Emperor and how he approached his duties. To Emperor Akihito, the job of emperor and the role of symbol are unified and inviolable, whereas the government considered them as being distinct. To the government, the royal family’s “work” (kōmu), though more or less ceremonial in nature, could be performed by almost anyone in the palace, but only the Emperor could be a symbol. That’s why when Emperor Akihito told the agency he wanted to step down, the agency suggested that the Crown Prince assume all the Emperor’s day-to-day tasks while the Emperor remained the Emperor. Emperor Akihito refused, recalling the turmoil that ensued when his father died.

However, there were other ways that the Emperor confounded the distinction. He and the Empress made a point of traveling to as many World War II battle sites as they could in order to pray for the souls of those killed, and not just Japanese souls. NHK pointed out that the Emperor was doing this of his own accord and the government was not entirely comfortable with it, but the broadcaster avoided saying what was implicit in the Emperor’s actions — that it was Japan who was responsible for all the lost lives he was honoring.

As Takeshi Hara, a professor at The Open University of Japan, wrote in the Tokyo Shimbun last week, trips such as these were not part of the Emperor’s regular duties, but they were nonetheless essential to the acts of symbol as the Emperor envisioned that role.

When the Showa Emperor made personal appearances, he simply stood in front of a crowd. Emperor Akihito, both as Crown Prince and Emperor, met with individuals and talked to them on their level, and the media loved it.

Osamu Watanabe, a constitutional scholar and honorary professor at Hitotsubashi University, also wrote in the Asahi Shimbun that Emperor Akihito’s activities in such matters are unambiguously political. He points out that Japan’s colonial designs and war of aggression during the Showa Era (1926-89) were carried out in the Emperor’s name. That’s why the postwar Constitution stripped the position of all political power.

But the Emperor’s political activities during the Heisei Era (1989-2019) cut both ways. After the Cold War ended, says Watanabe, Japan saw its chance to re-engage with the world as a major power and used the Emperor as a diplomatic tool, even in China. However, the Emperor himself took the initiative to express regret for Japan’s past actions in ways that were often at odds with the government’s vaguer stance on the matter. Consequently, liberals who were quick to criticize actions of Emperor Showa that veered from his purely symbolic role raised no objections when his son did the same thing. As put forth in a March 27 interview in the Tokyo Shimbun, the media similarly has become “uncritical” of the Imperial system.

Moreover, the people themselves clearly appreciate this streak of activism, much to the disappointment of conservative elements. In particular, says Watanabe, during the current administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, any conspicuous moves toward remilitarization and returning to the values of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) through constitutional revision were expected to be opposed, albeit indirectly, by the Emperor.

Watanabe finds this troubling, since there is the danger of reinstituting real political power in the throne and undermining the spirit of democracy. He insists it is the Japanese people, through their elected representatives, who must clarify the country’s responsibilities during the Showa Era and prevent Japan from ever engaging in war again. The Emperor alone can’t do it for them.

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