With the ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne and the beginning of the Reiwa Era on Wednesday, Japan concluded the 30-year Heisei Era.
Ahead of the change, The Japan Times spoke with Kenji Goto, 70, a veteran journalist who covered the death of Emperor Showa and the 1989 enthronement of his son, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, as a political reporter for Kyodo News.
Goto, who currently appears on television almost every day as a news anchor on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” and “Sunday Station,” among other shows, reflected on what it was like covering the Heisei Era and what to expect in the new era.
This interview was translated from Japanese to English and edited for brevity.
What do you remember most from your time covering the beginning of the Heisei Era?
I have many memories from back then but what I remember most is that on Dec. 24, 1989 — Christmas Eve — Japan introduced its very first consumption tax just as Emperor Showa’s physical condition was reaching a critical point.
That night, I went to the residence of then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and brought up the consumption tax, to which he replied that it wouldn’t have been possible if the emperor hadn’t fought his illness for so long. Two weeks later, on Jan. 7, 1989 — year 64 of the Showa Era — the emperor passed away.
The consumption tax was a miracle.
The emperor had been vomiting blood and his physical condition was declining rapidly. And yet, lawmakers continued to deliberate the consumption tax bill. Journalists, myself included, kept one eye on the emperor and another on the consumption tax. It was an unnerving time.
My memories from that time are endless. I encountered countless historic moments. At the time I was covering the Chief Cabinet Secretary.
Kyodo News Station got the scoop on the exact time of Emperor Showa’s death: 6:33 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1989. Kyodo broke the story with the headline, “EMPEROR HIROHITO DIES,” just like the American headline, “KENNEDY IS SHOT.” As a result, the rest of the world found out about the emperor’s passing before the people of Japan.
How would you compare the Emperor Showa to Emperor Akihito?
Emperor Showa’s passing was a heavy moment for the country that ultimately drew to a close with the announcement of the name of the next era.
This time, the country will change eras in a more controlled transition, thanks to an announcement Emperor Akihito made through a video message three years ago in which he expressed his wish to abdicate the throne.
How do you think the crown prince will assume the role of emperor?
I believe the crown prince will build from the current emperor’s efforts to establish himself as a symbolic figure, to expand the meaning of that role and thereby create a new tradition.
Shortly after the Heisei Era began, George Bush was inaugurated as president of the United States on Jan. 20. Then-Prime Minister Takeshita was invited to the U.S. as an official guest of the state. On Jan. 7, Emperor Showa passed away and just weeks later, on Jan. 31, Takeshita visited America. But days before that, a public funeral for the emperor was held in Shinjuku Central Park on Jan. 27, where Takeshita met Bush. In other words, the prime minister met the president twice in the same month.
It’s a curious thing because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had left [for a tour of several European states, followed by a visit] to Washington to meet with President Donald Trump on April 26. In May, Trump will visit Japan. He will be the new emperor’s very first state guest after ascending the throne.
The topic of the meeting at the time was also about business. This time around, Trump is likely to talk about raising tariffs on Japanese automobiles. The beginning of the next era is all about business, as well.
History is peculiar. You wouldn’t be able to see that without doing this job for 30 years.
How would you summarize the Heisei Era?
Contrary to the meaning behind its name, the Heisei Era was a period of turmoil in which many things were left unresolved. It served as an introduction to the Reiwa Era.
In 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests broke out in China in June and the Berlin Wall fell in October. As if these world events were coordinated in sync, the Japanese imperial era changed and the Heisei Era began in the midst of that global upheaval.
Japanese politicians have only grown more unreliable since reforms to the electoral system fell short. Outside of Japan, the end of the Cold War was followed not by peace but by ethnic and religious conflicts, national disputes and the rise of numerous terrorist groups.
The Heisei Era was a transition period. It was also a period of natural disasters in Japan. The island of Okushiri was nearly swallowed whole by a tsunami during the 1993 Hokkaido Earthquake. The 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake, the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake, the 2007 offshore Chuetsu Earthquake. 3/11 goes without saying. Last year we had heavy rains in western Japan and an earthquake in Hokkaido. Three years ago we had the earthquake in Kumamoto, as well. In other words, one after another, each disaster struck while we were still recovering from the last one.
The Heisei Era was a turbulent time. It is true that, as the emperor has said, Japan didn’t experience any wars during this period, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t indirectly involved with conflicts happening abroad.
What hopes and concerns do you have for the Reiwa Era?
The Reiwa Era will be about whether we can create a path forward to find solutions to the political, economic and societal issues we couldn’t resolve during the Heisei Era. If we can do that, we might be able to realize a new, globalized Japan. But if we allow these contradictions in our society to grow, so will confusion, especially in our political system, which is already in a state of meltdown.
In terms of the imperial family, maternal inheritance of the throne is still prohibited. Only kin bearing the paternal bloodline can become emperor of Japan. We’ve had a number of female emperors — the Tenji Emperor, for example — but they were all replaced by men in the end.
That was expected to change during the administration of (former Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi up until the birth of Prince Hisahito, the only grandson of Emperor Akihito … after which the movement fizzled. This needs to be brought up again, but Prime Minister Abe’s commitment to paternal inheritance has blocked any debate.
A looming crisis in Japan — or rather a concern — is the future of the imperial family and electoral reform. I believe resolving these two issues are the biggest tasks the country faces as it prepares to welcome the Reiwa Era.
If the Heisei Era was defined by natural disaster, what about the Reiwa Era?
It’s believed by many that these natural disasters are being exacerbated by global warming. Supertyphoons, glaciers melting, rising sea levels and so on.
These natural disasters are occurring at an increasingly global scale and it concerns every country, including Japan. And while we may not be able to stop them, we can create technology to reduce the damage they cause.
What do you think the emperor means to the people of Japan?
When ambassadors and heads of state visit Japan, for example, many of them request a meeting with the emperor. Even among democracies, there are few countries in the world that have a figure who represents such a long historical tradition like the Japanese emperor.
Even though administrations may come and go, it’s unlikely that a massive change will occur with bloodshed in this country. In this way, the monarch is like a stone weight for the citizens and provides them with a unified symbol that gives them a shared sense of unity.
It would be difficult for Prime Minister Abe to inspire unity, for example, if he were to travel to the site of a natural disaster and speak to victims. Abe is the leader of Japan, after all, so he can create a budget and express his intentions, but he doesn’t have the power to unify people. That is provided by the emperor, I would argue, who is the leader of the imperial family.
Each imperial era punctuates the different chapters of Japan’s history. In Western countries they have centuries and millennia to divide history but ultimately the year is written simply as a row of numbers.
Era names — Meiji, Taisho, Heisei — give the people who lived through them a sense of mutual experience and understanding. They have an unspoken power, one could say.
When the emperor passes away, it’s a big deal. This is one of the reasons the current emperor has chosen to step down from the throne. That, and to avoid the burden it would put on his family. And so, he chose to abdicate the throne while he still has his health to ensure a peaceful beginning of the next era.
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