National

In first speech, Japan's new emperor vows to emulate father and fulfill duties as 'symbol of the state'

by Tomohiro Osaki and Sakura Murakami

Staff Writers

Delivering his first speech since ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne, Japan’s new emperor vowed Wednesday to “act according to the Constitution” and fulfill his role as the symbol of the state while “always turning my thoughts to the people,” following in the footsteps of his father.

“In acceding to the throne, I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by His Majesty the emperor emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement,” Emperor Naruhito said in the brief speech — broadcast live on TV — before the heads of the government, legislature and judiciary in a ceremony attended by imperial family members and other government officials.

“I will act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them,” he said.

“I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world.”

It was Emperor Naruhito’s first address to the nation since taking the throne at midnight following the abdication of his father, now referred to as Emperor Emeritus Akihito, on Tuesday.

Born after World War II, the 59-year-old became the symbol of the state overnight. Under Japan’s postwar Constitution, the emperor is barred from exercising political power.

The abdication put an end to the 30-year run of the Heisei (Achieving Peace) imperial era, in turn ushering in a new era called Reiwa (Beautiful Harmony) at midnight — a moment marked by nationwide celebrations.

Prior to the speech, the emperor, dressed in a Western tailcoat, attended a regalia inheritance ritual in the Imperial Palace’s most prestigious room, the so-called Pine Chamber.

In this ceremony, chamberlains were seen carrying a sword and a jewel — two of the three sacred treasures of the imperial family — as well as the state and privy seals before placing them on tables, in a gesture acknowledging his succession and the inheritance of the regalia and seals.

At the start of his speech, the new monarch said he is “filled with a sense of solemnity” as he thinks about the heavy responsibility he was undertaking with his new role.

His speech was then followed by remarks from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who congratulated the new emperor on his enthronement.

“Regarding His Majesty the emperor as the symbol of the state and the unity of the people, we — amid the turbulence of international affairs — are determined to carve out Japan’s bright future full of peace and hope that we can be proud of, as well as an age where a culture can be born and nurtured as people’s minds are drawn beautifully together,” Abe said.

Experts were split over how to interpret the new emperor’s vow to “act according to the Constitution.”

Michio Nakajima, a historian and former president of Kanagawa University, said the new emperor’s expression was more open to interpretation than his father’s pledge at his enthronement in 1989 to “protect” the supreme law “together with the people of Japan.”

“Then-Emperor Akihito stated that he would ‘protect the constitution.’ Furthermore, he went as far as to say that he would do exactly that ‘with the people.’

“On the other hand, the current emperor, Naruhito, said that he will ‘act according to the Constitution,’ hinting that he will abide by the Constitution even if that constitution changes,” he said.

“These speeches are approved by the Cabinet beforehand … meaning that the Cabinet is also involved in the drafting of the wording,” Nakajima added, speculating that a stronger wording of “protecting” the supreme law wouldn’t have sat well with the current administration’s push for constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, Isao Tokoro, a professor emeritus of Kyoto Sangyo University, said  Emperor Naruhito’s wording is in essence “equal” to his father’s, reflecting his determination to preserve the national charter.

“I think His Majesty made a conscious decision to adopt a different wording from his father so he can express in his own words the idea of preserving or observing” the Constitution, Tokoro said.

Wednesday’s enthronement also shed renewed light on the status of women in the imperial family and its male-only succession system that critics say endangers the sustainability of what is believed to be the world’s oldest monarchy. Currently, the imperial family only has one young heir, Prince Hisahito, age 12.

A supplementary resolution to the special one-off legislation that enabled Emperor Emeritus Akihito’s abdication stipulates that the government should initiate debate on how to make the male-only succession system more sustainable, including the possibility of allowing a female imperial branch, as soon as the law was enforced on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated the government view that preserving the sustainability of the succession system is an “extremely important matter that affects the foundation of the nation.” He added, however, future debates must be conducted in a “careful” manner given the “weight of the fact that the throne has been passed down by the male side of the family without exception from ancient times.”

Meanwhile, critics took issue with the absence of female members of the royal family at the inheritance ritual on Wednesday morning.

While attended by male adults from the imperial family, the ceremony was off-limits to its female members, including new Empress Masako, taking a page from the last such ceremony in 1989, when female members were similarly barred from attending.

The government, however, had decided to allow members of the Cabinet to attend the rite as observers regardless of sex, paving the way for its only female minister, Satsuki Katayama, who is in charge of regional revitalization, to do so.

“Circumstances may have been different 30 years ago,” when the previous succession rite took place without female imperial family members in attendance, but “we now live in an age where gender equality is a huge issue, not just in Japan but across the world,” Nakajima said.

“The ceremonies and rites should be conducted in accordance with the constitution — which clearly states principles such as separation of state and religion, sovereignty of the people, and of course, equality between men and women,” Nakajima added.

Meanwhile, the emperor’s speech was notable for its mix of his admiration for his father and his determination to pursue his own path, Tokoro said.

His acknowledgment of the “comportment” shown by the emperor emeritus was tantamount to him declaring he will “emulate and inherit” his father’s spirit, Tokoro said.

But on the other hand, the emperor’s desire to reflect on not only his own father but on the “path trodden by past emperors” is befitting of someone who “in his adolescence studied the history of Japanese emperors almost on a weekly basis under the guidance of” university professors, Tokoro said.

This, coupled with his reference to “self-improvement,” makes the speech “a declaration of his determination to both learn from his father and perfect the role of a symbolic emperor,” Tokoro said.