Emperor Akihito began the new year with a statement that pointedly referred to two major controversies: war memory and nuclear energy. His thoughts on these demonstrate why he is so admired by the public and underscore the crucial role the 81-year-old monarch plays in contemporary Japan.
Since his reign began in 1989, the Emperor has weighed in on sensitive issues numerous times and in doing so has repeatedly repudiated the agenda of right-wing nationalists. Of course his words are carefully vetted and are sufficiently ambiguous to avoid an explicit political stand, but in the context of his remarks and gestures over the years, his choice of topics represent a powerful message to all but the most obtuse.
In the aftermath of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s re-election last month, and his Liberal Democratic Party’s commanding position in the Diet, there is considerable media speculation about his intentions. While his hollow victory was more an indictment of a pathetic opposition than an endorsement of the LDP, and the record-low voter turnout suggests little enthusiasm for Abe or his policies, this doesn’t really matter because he is on the cusp of accomplishing much of his bucket list.
Abe has affirmed that he wants to gain the public’s understanding about revising the Constitution, indicating he is aware of strong opposition, and pass legislation that will lift existing constraints on Japan’s military forces. This is related to the new Japan-U.S. defense guidelines, which are aimed at expanding Japan’s military role in the two nations’ alliance. Abe’s aspiration to become deputy sheriff is opposed by a majority of the public because they are anxious that Japan will be dragged into some conflict at Washington’s behest, and few believe Abe’s reassurances that Japan is only signing on to a regional security role precisely because there is no such restriction in the draft guidelines.
Polls conducted by the staunchly pro-Abe, pro-constitutional revision Yomiuri Shimbun indicate that support for revising Article 9 sank dramatically over the past decade from 44.4 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2014. On the eve of the December 2014 elections, an Asahi Shimbun poll indicated that only 3 percent of voters considered constitutional revision a priority, as voters’ minds are focused on pocketbook issues like social security, jobs and the state of the economy. Most also oppose his plans to promote arms exports.
In this context, the Emperor pointedly referred to the horrific suffering Japan both endured and inflicted from 1931-45, an anti-war message that endorses Japan’s pacifist Constitution and rejects efforts to rewrite and burnish the history of Japanese aggression.
The Emperor said: “This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which cost many people their lives. Those who died on the battlefields, those who died in the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who died in the air raids on Tokyo and other cities — so many people lost their lives in this war. I think it is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of our country.”
The Emperor’s reference to the Manchurian Incident is a rebuke to revisionists who maintain that Japan was fighting a defensive war of Pan-Asian liberation against Western colonial powers. Instead, the Emperor’s comment implies that the wider war was ignited by Japanese aggression against China, and that on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat it is important to learn the lessons of this tragedy. It is hard to ignore the explicit warning about the dangers of militarism, especially when considering the Emperor’s record.
The Emperor has continued his father’s boycott of Yasukuni Shrine that began when 14 Class-A war criminals were secretly enshrined there in 1978. Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously called Emperor Showa, confided to an aide that he refrained from visiting the shrine thereafter due to their presence.
Emperor Akihito has often demonstrated to the world that Japan does indeed repent for the wartime horrors it inflicted, thus rejecting the unrepentant, vindicating narrative associated with Yasukuni Shrine and the adjacent Yushukan Museum. The Emperor’s reconciliation diplomacy — visiting nations and expressing remorse — has done more than all of Japan’s politicians combined in healing the wounds of war and restoring national dignity. Alas, reactionary politicians and the jingoistic press intentionally undermine his efforts.
The Constitution prohibits the Emperor from intervening in political affairs, but this did not stop him from rebuking a Tokyo government martinet who told him it was his job to ensure that teachers stood and sang the national anthem while facing the flag. In this memorable exchange at an Imperial garden party in 2004, the Emperor remarked that, “It is not desirable to do so,” giving moral support to teachers who claimed the government was infringing on their constitutional rights.
The Emperor also stirred controversy in 2001 when he publicly acknowledged that Japan’s Imperial line descends from Korean ancestors in the hope that it would enable these “frenemies” to overcome animosities and cooperate in hosting the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Apparently the anti-Korean hate speech groups that have grown emboldened under Abe did not get that memo.
In his new year statement, the Emperor also voiced his concerns about nuclear energy. While Abe is eager to restart Japan’s idled reactors, the Emperor poignantly reminded everyone about the abject fate of Japan’s nuclear refugees.
“This is the fourth winter since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and it pains me to think that there are still so many people who cannot return to the places they used to live because of radioactive contamination and so many who face the prospect of a cold, harsh winter in temporary housing,” he said.
The Emperor’s remarks reminded me of Eri Hotta’s book “Japan 1941,” where she recounts how his father, Emperor Hirohito, confronted military advisers before the attack on Pearl Harbor, reminding them four years earlier they had promised the China campaign would be over in three months, and expressed doubts about their new promises of a quick six-month victory in the Pacific. Then as now, those in power have trouble acknowledging mistakes and so up the ante by doubling down on their bets, hoping for the best. Until March 11, 2011 — nearly four years ago — the nuclear village assured us that nuclear power was 100 percent safe and is now once again reassuring us that the reactors are safe. Perhaps like most people in Japan, his majesty has his doubts.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.