Japan’s enthronement combines legend and the spiritual with modernity, similar to coronations used by monarchies worldwide. These ceremonies tend to be described as “traditional” — but the term is overused and rarely properly defined in reference to Japan’s enthronement, Sokui no Rei.
The imperial house, however, has long survived not because of its stubborn attachment to traditions but quite the opposite — because it has changed to suit evolving social conditions throughout its history.
The present enthronement ceremony does, in an expansive sense, date back more than a millennium. But it was thoroughly overhauled during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) at a time when the emperor was made into the apex of the newly formed nation-state, a position he does not hold under the postwar system.
Although observers of the ceremonies will see various demonstrations of respect toward the newly enthroned emperor, they will be directed by the sovereign people (as well as by foreign guests) toward the national symbol of Japan rather than toward the sacrosanct and sovereign emperor of the imperial era (1868-1945).
For the first postwar enthronement in 1990, practices were somewhat revised to suit the new constitutional order, although not as much as one might expect. The 2019 version will almost entirely follow the 1990 precedent.
Rather than using the simplistic term “traditional” to describe this ceremony, it is more accurate to view it as an amalgam of the premodern, of the Meiji Era of modernization, and of the postwar, with the Meiji component (in terms of how the nitty-gritty rituals are carried out if not their meaning in society) representing the most significant part of the equation.
Although the enthronement of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, in 1928 was, in the context of those times, an international event, the two postwar enthronements have become international events to such a degree that one has to wonder if the fact that nearly 200 foreign representatives were already committed to coming to Japan for the ceremony played a role in the decision, in spite of the damage wrought by the recent typhoon, to go through with the ceremony on schedule, even while the parade was postponed.
Contemporary enthronements are chances for Japan to showcase itself to the world, for Japanese politicians to quietly engage in diplomacy on the side with foreign representatives, as well as for Japanese to reassure themselves, through repeated citing of the number of foreign representatives attending, of Japan’s place in the world.
Behind all this are a new emperor and empress who want to use their considerable prestige to make the world a better place.
In his first remarks as emperor on May 1, Emperor Naruhito reinforced what he had been saying in the years leading up to his ascension to the throne, namely that in many areas he plans to follow the example set by his father, who as the first emperor enthroned under the postwar Constitution set the model of a “symbolic emperor.”
At the same time, no one should expect Emperor Naruhito to be a carbon copy of his father. At his February 2018 birthday news conference, then-Crown Prince Naruhito foreshadowed that he would also embrace change when necessary: “I think … what people expect in official duties will change according to social changes, and it would be important to respond to new demands. I would like to sincerely perform official duties accordingly.”
Throughout history, and especially during the modern era, the imperial house has endeavored to keep in tune with the trends of the time. This will undoubtedly be the case during the Reiwa Era. There are already two areas where one can already distinguish Emperor Naruhito from his father.
Before becoming emperor, Emperor Naruhito repeatedly referenced the ongoing diversification of Japan and the necessity of tolerance to diverse societies. At his last birthday news conference as crown prince, Naruhito described the Heisei Era (1989-2019) as an “age that witnessed greater diversity in the lifestyles and value systems held by the people.”
He went on to stress, “It will be important to accept that diversity with a spirit of tolerance while seeking to further develop it through the mutual encouragement of each other.” Tolerance is likely to be an especially important theme for the Reiwa monarchy.
We can also expect the Reiwa monarchy to take a more international approach to various issues. Although this fact is sometimes lost as a result of the dizzying number of international trips that Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Emperor Emerita Michiko undertook, the new emperor and empress have even more extensive international backgrounds.
Emperor Naruhito’s interest in a variety of issues related to water apparently goes back to his childhood, and his graduate studies at Oxford University helped internationalize his interest in this issue. In spite of the recent typhoon, the topic of water may seem mundane for many people, especially those who have regular access to clean water, which includes all Japanese. But it is a consuming issue for the billion-plus individuals around the world for whom accessing clean water is a daily challenge.
Emperor Naruhito’s attention to water as a global problem likely marks a new departure for the imperial house. In the same way that his father and mother devoted much of their reign to lending their prestige to vulnerable members of Japanese society, Emperor Naruhito seems poised to lend his prestige to some of the most vulnerable members of global society, for example, those individuals who cannot take access to water for granted, in order to try to help to uplift the most marginalized members of global society.
As for the new empress, most Japanese have been pleasantly surprised about the zeal with which she has thus far embraced her public duties. But there is one point to be remembered about Empress Masako. Her dream ever since she was a child was to serve her country, and we can expect her to do just that as empress.
But we also now know that Empress Masako, while crown princess, did not appreciate being treated as though her most important value as a human being was to serve as the womb necessary to produce a male heir to the throne.
Hopefully, Japan’s politicians will keep that in mind when contemplating needed changes to the imperial system, whose very survival is threatened by a paucity of heirs.
Kenneth Ruoff is a professor of modern Japanese history at Portland State University and director of the university’s Center for Japanese Studies and author of “Japan’s Imperial House in the Postwar Era, 1945-2019” to be published later this year.