Emperor Akihito abdicated through a series of rituals held at the Imperial Palace on Tuesday, ending the 30-plus years of the Heisei Era under his reign and paving the way for the enthronement of his son, Emperor Naruhito, and the launch of the new era of Reiwa.

Not unlike the preceding era of Showa, remembered as the tumultuous times in which Japan experienced the devastation of World War II and postwar reconstruction and prosperity, the outgoing period of Heisei — despite the origin of the Imperial era name that meant universal peace — was indeed a turbulent era both at home and abroad.

The nation went through protracted economic doldrums as well as long-term transformation of its economy, and was hit by a series of large natural disasters. Overseas, the end of the Cold War was followed by new forms of struggles in search of a new international order and a prolonged war on terrorism. And a host of structural challenges confronting Japan — in particular its rapidly aging and declining population that threatens to change the shape of the nation — will not disappear with the transition from Heisei to Reiwa.

Heisei was also an era in which the departing Emperor Akihito — who in 1989 became the first emperor to take the throne under Japan’s postwar Constitution — continued to explore the role of the emperor as “the symbol” of the state and unity of the people, as defined by the Constitution. His abdication — the first in Japan’s modern history — also provided an opportunity for people in this country to think about the meaning of the emperor as a “symbol” — a question that the new emperor is expected to take on in his own way.

When he assumed the throne 30 years ago, Emperor Akihito pledged to honor the Constitution and fulfill his duties in accordance with the nation’s supreme law. However, the Constitution itself does not clearly specify what an emperor’s duties are as a “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.” The Constitution says that the emperor “shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for” in its text, including appointing the prime minister as designated by the Diet as well as promulgating laws and treaties, convening the Diet and dissolving its Lower House “with the advice and approval of the Cabinet,” and that he “shall not have powers related to government.”

At the same time, Emperor Akihito spent a lot of time and energy on his “public acts,” such as his repeated trips to the sites of intense World War II battles, including Okinawa, Saipan and the Palau island of Peleliu to pray for the war dead, as well as to areas devastated by such natural disasters as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Such public acts are said to strongly reflect the will of the emperor himself — and that’s what he extensively referred to when, during a news conference on his birthday last December, he looked back on his “journey as emperor” that he was about to wrap up. He positioned those public acts as a major pillar of his activities as “emperor as the symbol” in order to proactively stand by victims of disasters and other misfortunes, listen to them and care for them.

That must be why, in a televised video message in 2016, Emperor Akihito indicated his wish to abdicate — a move that is not provided for in the succession rules under the Imperial House Law — when he realized that his advanced age and gradually ailing health would soon make it difficult for him to adequately continue the role that he had been playing as emperor. His abdication Tuesday marked the first such move in more than 200 years — and the first under Japan’s modern constitutional rule — which necessitated the enactment of special one-off legislation applied solely to the departing emperor.

There were people who objected to an imperial abdication on the grounds that the emperor could not perform his public acts due to his advanced age and ailing health — with some opining that the emperor’s duty is to pray for the people and that his sheer presence serves his function. However, a great majority of people in media opinion polls expressed support for Emperor Akihito’s wish to retire — an indication of their support of the way the emperor kept searching throughout his reign for a proper role as symbol of the state and the unity of the people.

The Constitution also says that the emperor derives his position “from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” In that sense, the question of what roles the emperor should play as symbol of the state is an issue that the people at large should grapple with. We should together think how Emperor Naruhito ought to pursue the role in his new reign.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.