Much like chapters in a book, the enthronement of an emperor marks the beginning of a new era in Japan. From Meiji to Taisho to Showa, each imperial era began and ended with the death of an emperor followed by a yearlong period in which the country mourned, holidays and festivities were canceled and the economy briefly sputtered.
But the Heisei Era has a different ending, with Emperor Naruhito ascending the throne on Wednesday following the abdication of his father, now known as Emperor Emeritus Akihito.
“The difference is that this era (ended) with the abdication of an emperor, not his death,” said Midori Watanabe, a former producer for Nippon TV. “This time, the emperor told the public that he’s concerned about his health and chose to step down and make way for his successor.”
As a journalist, Watanabe has been covering imperial matters for most of her life. Born in 1935, she started following the comings and goings of the emperor, the royal family and the imperial household for NTV after covering then-Crown Prince Akihito’s wedding anniversary parade in 1966.
Two decades later, she took charge of covering both the death of Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, as well as the enthronement of his successor, Emperor Emeritus Akihito.
Watanabe, an energetic 84-year-old, vividly recalled her time with NTV, including one adventure in 1989 that saw her capture the shot of a lifetime.
With a small crew, she made her way to the rooftop of the Tokyo FM building across from the Hanzobori — the moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace — to see if they could get a better view. Using a telephoto lens, they were able to catch a rare glimpse of Emperor Akihito, who had ascended the throne only a few days before, peeling back curtains in a room thought to be where he rests during the day.
This footage, Watanabe said, has since been used hundreds of times.
While he was still crown prince, Emperor Emeritus Akihito made headlines during his high school days when he snuck out of the Imperial Palace to drink coffee and eat apple pie at a cafe in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district. Watanabe helped produce a segment in which this episode — later known as the “Ginza Escape Incident” — was re-enacted.
Years before that, Watanabe traveled by train and taxi to the town of Ikeda, Gifu Prefecture, to speak with Toshiko Takenaka, who was recruited by the Imperial Household Agency to serve as wet nurse to the newborn future emperor.
Takenaka, who was in her 30s at the time, was subjected to a background check that delved into her family history, criminal background and personal health, Watanabe said. Once the agency gave its approval, Takenaka made the hourslong trek to the capital only to brave medical examinations and full-body disinfections at every door before finally breastfeeding the baby under the careful supervision of a crowd of doctors, nurses and guards.
Takenaka, a wife and mother with a family back home, did this every day for two years. It was a physically demanding job, Watanabe said, but it was also an honor that couldn’t be refused.
“To be the emperor’s wet nurse was very difficult,” Watanabe said. “Human rights issues didn’t get much attention back in those days.”
Empress Emerita Michiko upended this tradition by breastfeeding her own son, according to Watanabe.
“Most men only care about the emperor, but Empress Michiko, who received a modern education and wrote her graduation thesis in English, was sought after by the imperial family, the oldest in Japan. She changed a great many things for the better,” she said. “(Emperor Emeritus Akihito) is great, and by that I mean his greatest accomplishment is marrying Empress Michiko.”
The imperial family has been modernized under the current royal couple, Watanabe added, both in the way they interact with ordinary people and how they respond to natural disasters and other events.
Japan was consumed by war during the first half of the Showa Era. Watanabe said that Emperor Emeritus Akihito spent much of his time on the Chrysanthemum Throne apologizing to those who lost loved ones in the battles waged in his father’s name.
“To refuse to forget that, and to apologize for what happened, pray with citizens and travel to disaster sites to speak with victims and survivors, if only to give them a little energy,” she said. “The imperial family changed from one that prays to one that takes action.”
Under the new emperor, it’s likely that the imperial family will continue to become more modernized, said Monzurul Huq, the Tokyo bureau chief for Prothom Alo, the largest daily newspaper in Bangladesh.
Huq, who moved to Japan in 1994 and became the first journalist from a developing country to act as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, has spent the last 25 years reporting in Japan.
The new emperor, who seems to be more liberal and pacifist than his predecessors, is a “completely fresh start” because he visited foreign countries at a young age, having attended England’s prestigious Oxford University and traveled to parts of Europe, Huq said.
“Giving a message to the people like (Emperor Emeritus Akihito) did (and) focusing on the importance of peace and not repeating what happened in the past,” he said. “These are the messages (the new emperor) can convey to the people.”
In 2009, Huq was invited to the Imperial Palace after becoming president of the FCCJ. He met with several members of the imperial family, including the emperor and empress and the crown prince and crown princess. Huq recalled that both the emperor and the crown prince were fairly knowledgeable about his home country. Emperor Emeritus Akihito spoke in detail about his trip as crown prince to Bangladesh in the 1970s, which Huq found impressive.
Huq believes many people are unhappy that women remain barred from ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne, pointing to the difference with some Western imperial systems, where female inheritance is an accepted norm.
He also alluded to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s work to create “a society in which women shine” as part of his efforts to increase gender diversity at the country’s highest levels.
“That women ‘shine’ means in every aspect there should be equality,” Huq said. “Keeping one unequal aspect — a very important issue of the state — means you cannot talk about equality in reality. In that aspect, Japan is lagging behind.”
But gender inequality wasn’t the only issue to emerge during the Heisei Era, Huq noted.
Earlier this year, in a potentially monumental shift, Japan began the controversial process of opening its doors to what could be thousands of foreign laborers as the country’s workforce ages.
The past three decades have also seen a spate of security and historical issues rear their heads.
The Abe administration has pushed for revising the pacifist Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 as regional tensions with Beijing have flared and eased, especially over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing and its abduction of Japanese nationals have also been key issues for Tokyo.
Ties with South Korea have withered over wartime laborers and “comfort women,” a term that refers to women who worked in wartime brothels, including those against their will, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
Emperor Naruhito “is the first emperor who has been exposed to foreign countries, and with that I think he will try his best to spread the message of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence,” Huq said. “These are the historical issues. Where do you make the demarcation line? Which history do you take?
“I’m quite optimistic that things will go in the right way.”