Twenty years ago on Jan. 7, 1989, the Emperor ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne immediately after the death of his father, the Emperor Showa. This year, the 20th anniversary of the Emperor’s enthronement will be followed on April 10 by the 50th anniversary of his marriage with the Empress. We pray that the Emperor, now 75, will be blessed with good health and longevity.
Since his enthronement, the Emperor has devoted himself to faithfully playing the constitutional role of the emperor. Article 1 of the Constitution says, “The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”
The Emperor’s basic idea about his role is couched in the phrase: “Sharing both joy and hardship with people,” words that he repeated after his enthronement. On Jan. 2, when people visited the Imperial Palace to congratulate the Imperial Family for the new year, his attitude was clearly manifested.
The Emperor said to them: “I am worried that under these severe economic conditions, many people greet the New Year in the midst of a lot of difficulties. I pray that this year will be a good year, even a little, for people.” This showed that he not only is sensitive to the plight of people but also correctly grasps the nation’s conditions and can express them succinctly.
Fifteen years after his enthronement, the Emperor and the Empress had visited all the prefectures. The Emperor thinks it is his and the Empress’s duty to turn their thoughts to the socially weak such as the disabled, the elderly and those who have suffered from natural disasters. To put this thought into action, the Imperial couple makes it a rule to visit facilities for such people and talk to them in person during their official visits to various parts of the county.
On Jan. 31, 1995, the Emperor and the Empress were seen kneeling on the floor of a gym in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, holding the hands of survivors of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of Jan. 17 that year, and saying, “Please do not give up hope and do persevere.” Some people criticized the Emperor for kneeling on the floor to talk with ordinary citizens.
Unlike the Emperor Showa, the Emperor, who was a child when Japan was immersed in militarism, had nothing to do with decisions related to Japan’s war in the 1930s and ’40s. When Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers, the Emperor was in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, where he had been evacuated. Three months after the end of World War II, he came back to Tokyo and saw the devastation of the capital. He expressed his wish for peace by writing “Heiwa Kokka Kensetsu (Building a Peaceful Nation)” in his 1946 New Year’s calligraphy exercise.
The Emperor has been trying to be true to the spirit of the war-renouncing Constitution. While he was the Crown Prince, he cited the following days as ones to remember: Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, when the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs; Aug. 15, 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender; and June 23, 1945, when the Imperial Japanese armed forces ceased organized resistance in the Battle of Okinawa. It is said that the Emperor offers prayer on these days every year.
That the Emperor chose June 23 along with the other days was testimony of his keen historical awareness of the sufferings that war brings to ordinary citizens and of the fact that the Japanese military used Okinawa as a “sacrificial stone” to delay America’s full-scale attack on Japan proper. It is estimated that about one-fourth of the Okinawan people died because of the battle if the victims of malaria and hunger immediately afterward are taken into account.
At a news conference held toward the end of 1994, the Emperor said of the approaching 50th anniversary of the end of World War II that he would continue to turn his thoughts to places where the sufferings from war were especially heavy. In February that year, he had visited Iwo Jima and prayed for the souls of both Japanese and American soldiers.
He went on to visit Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa in the summer of 1995, and Saipan in June 2005, to console the souls of war victims. In 1992, he became the first Japanese emperor to visit China and touched on Japan’s wartime behavior by saying, “Our nation inflicted great sufferings on the people of China.”
Immediately after his enthronement, the Emperor said: “I pledge to protect the Constitution together with you all and to fulfill my duty in following it. I sincerely hope for a rise in the fortunes of the state, world peace and progress in humankind’s welfare.” This is the spirit that all politicians should emulate.
Toward the end of last year, the Emperor suffered irregular heartbeats and stomach inflammation. Although he would probably oppose the idea, the government should seriously consider reducing the Emperor’s responsibilities.