With Emperor Akihito abdicating the Chrysanthemum Throne on Tuesday, three decades of Heisei — an era named in the hopes of “achieving peace” — will come to a close.

Fittingly, it was an era in which Japan enjoyed a period of continuous peace — and yet it was also marked by economic stagnation and disaster.

In such a time of both peace and tumult, one of the most indelible images that captured Emperor Akihito’s role may be of him kneeling on the floor of an evacuation center with his wife, Empress Michiko, surrounded by victims — likewise kneeling — after the eruption of Mount Unzen in Nagasaki Prefecture in 1991.

Indeed, as the symbol of the state, the Emperor has carved out a role as a unifying figure during times of national tragedy, as well as a healer of wounds in other countries that were ravaged during World War II.

As much as this image as a unifying and peaceful figure may be taken for granted, it is a role that he carved out for himself — one that should not go underappreciated considering that the definition of “symbol of the state” (as the position of emperor is described in the Constitution) has been an elusive one.

“The symbolic Imperial system is actually quite difficult to define precisely, because it is very open to interpretation,” said Hideya Kawanishi, an expert on the Imperial family and an associate professor at Nagoya University.

It was a role that Emperor Akihito molded into shape, as ambiguity manifested itself in the constitutional wording — as evidenced in the differing interpretations between Emperor Akihito and his father, Emperor Showa, who was known as Hirohito while he was still alive.

Until the end of World War II, Japan had an emperor-centric political system over which the monarch exercised considerable clout.

Emperors were, however, stripped of political power and their role was redefined as a “symbol” when the Constitution was enacted in 1947.

Emperor Showa had, in the space of a few years, shifted from being one of the most powerful political figures in the country to being divested of that power and becoming a symbol of the state instead.

Yet he still interpreted his role as being based on a hierarchical relationship with the public despite the constitutional change, Kawanishi said. “He always believed his role to be one as the leader of the country.”

In contrast, Emperor Akihito focused on developing a more intimate relationship with the people of Japan. He shed the godlike image that the Imperial family had held onto through myths maintaining that emperors were direct descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami.

Scholars claim that his marriage to Empress Michiko — who had no aristocratic background — played a significant part in bringing then-Crown Prince Akihito “down from the clouds.”

Soon after joining the Imperial family she would be seen kneeling and talking to members of the public — a way of communicating that Emperor Akihito himself began to adopt.

Emblematic of this, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko knelt among and mingled with disaster victims at temporary evacuation sites whenever natural calamities took their toll on the nation.

This was in stark contrast with previous emperors, who would visit those who were marginalized but conduct their “inspections” standing.

They may as well be called “the social welfare Imperial Couple,” said Kenneth Ruoff, a history professor and director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University and an expert on the Japanese Imperial system.

“They’ve very actively tried to compress the margins of society. They’ve worked to bring various disadvantaged groups into the mainstream,” Ruoff said.

For example, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited evacuation centers and disaster areas following the Tohoku earthquake of 2011 for seven consecutive weeks, from the end of that March to early May.

Over the years and decades, they have visited all 14 health sanatoriums for leprosy patients around Japan, as well as visited far-flung islands that face decreasing populations.

“The Imperial Couple are popular because they brought unity in an era of division and discordance,” Kawanishi said.

“They have continued to devote their time to the marginalized members of society, whether that be in terms of visiting disaster-struck areas or depopulated islands. … Their roles just happened to coincide” with the unity the country needed at the time, he added.

Some, however, disagree that Emperor Akihito should be devoting so much time and energy to his role as a symbol and developing a closer relationship with the public.

He has “set a precedent as to what it means for emperors to be a symbol … but that role as a symbol is not at the core of what it means to be emperor,” said Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor at Reitaku University who is an expert on Japan’s Constitution.

Instead, Yagi believes that the emperor’s role should be strictly centered around official practices written in the Constitution, such as conducting rituals and hosting foreign dignitaries.

“The status of emperor is not supported by the popularity of the people … so winning public acceptance is not something that should be of importance,” he said.

Rather, emperors should have a more distant relationship with the public in order to maintain the respectability and mystique of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Yagi said.

“The emperor should be someone who prays for the nation, as well as a person who garners reverence … and that reverence should not be one directed toward the emperor as an individual, but rather the Chrysanthemum Throne as a system and historical institution,” he said.

Regardless of the question of whether Emperor Akihito is too close to the public or not, the image of him kneeling among victims sits well with the public image of the Heisei Era as one defined by natural disasters.

But there is another defining feature of Emperor Akihito’s role as a symbol — one encapsulated in an image of him and his wife, heads bowed, atop a cliff on Saipan in 2005.

Fifty years prior on the small island, horrific battles had claimed the lives of some 43,000 Japanese soldiers, 12,000 Japanese civilians, 3,500 American soldiers and 900 local civilians.

For Emperor Akihito, “this effort to bring closure to legacies of the war … has been a hugely important aspect” of his role as a symbol, said Ruoff.

The Emperor himself said during a news conference in 1981 that there are four dates each year of the utmost importance in Japan: when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the days World War II ended in Okinawa and mainland Japan.

In a break from tradition, he also visited Okinawa as Crown Prince in 1975 — the first time that a member of the Imperial family had set foot in the prefecture since World War II — to pay his respects in the wake of the devastation caused by the war. He followed this another visit in April 1993 — this time a first for a reigning emperor.

“Akihito personally experienced devastation that the war brought to Japan,” and “understood the kind of damage the war and imperialism inflicted on other countries,” Ruoff said. “This was something he felt incredibly strongly about. … Combine that with the fact that during his reign there were still large numbers of Japanese alive who had suffered personally in the war.”

Despite resistance from conservative critics, Emperor Akihito offered an apology during a banquet for South Korean President Roh Tae-woo when he was on a state visit to Japan in 1990, saying that “I cannot help but feel the deepest remorse, thinking of the pain your people suffered during the sorrowful years brought about by my country.”

Also, during a state visit to China in 1992, he expressed his “deepest sorrow” that “there was an unfortunate time during which my country caused great pain and suffering.”

The emphasis on healing wartime wounds is not just rooted in the Emperor’s own experiences, Kawanishi said.

“The question of war responsibility was one that always seemed to hang over the head of Emperor Akihito’s father,” he said. “I believe that Emperor Akihito took it on himself to do what he could” to ease the pain of the war.

This may change, as more than 70 years after the war there are fewer people alive who experienced it firsthand, and the nation as a whole is becoming further removed from the memories of the conflict.

Also, the successor to the throne, Crown Prince Naruhito, did not experience the war, meaning that his paying respects to the war dead will “be less grounded in reality … making it that much more difficult,” Kawanishi said.

Still, with the role of being a symbol as vague as it is, Japan may see some more drastic changes during the coming reign despite the niche that Emperor Akihito carved out for himself through his years on the throne.

Emperor Akihito himself said that being closer to the people “has informed his role as a symbol, but that definition itself applies only to the current Emperor,” said Takeshi Hara, a professor at the Open University of Japan who specializes in political thought. “The current interpretation of what it means to be a symbol isn’t necessarily the ‘right’ one, and there is always room for differing interpretations,” he said.

Historically speaking, the role of emperors “has changed, from the Meiji to Taisho eras, and from the Taisho to Showa eras, ” he said. “The history of emperors is itself one of change.”

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