The new imperial era Reiwa has started, bringing an end to the 31-year Heisei Era.
It has been approximately three years since Emperor Akihito manifested his will to stand down till Emperor Naruhito ascended to the throne. The succession of the Chrysanthemum Throne followed by an abdication was an unprecedented event in the history of constitutional government, something no Japanese had ever experienced. As it was a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in real life, various matters of concern and anxiety were raised pending the transition. However, despite such apprehension, the transition process has so far been successful, receiving reactions far more positive than expected.
On April 30, many people stood in front of the Imperial Palace despite the rain, as if to regret parting with the Heisei Era. Then came May 1, the day of the introduction of the new era. On May 4, signaling the change of mood, more than 100,000 people from the jubilant nation gathered in front of the Imperial Palace, waving little Japanese flags, to take part in the people’s visit to the palace for the enthronement greeting.
Upon being interviewed for TV, people commented, “I came here at 3 a.m.,” “I hope the peace enjoyed in Heisei will continue on to Reiwa,” “the young generations like us are responsible for shaping the Reiwa Era,” “I am soon retiring, while the emperor is taking on a big role from here. I wish him all the best” and so forth.
Watching those people commenting, I felt that the “emperor as the symbol,” which was the consequence of defeat in World War II, had now come truly to embody the unity of the people. Needless to say, this is the result of the tireless efforts of both Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, who had always remained “close to the people” in their thoughts throughout their reign. However, in hindsight, the nation of Japan also supported the emperor’s never-ending endeavor to “seek an appropriate answer to the question of how the symbol should be.”
Watching the previously mentioned TV interviews with such thoughts in mind, I felt positive about the modern image of the imperial family held by the nation, with quite a few people expressing high expectations about the new emperor taking an “active role in the international arena.” I felt that this is a sign the Japanese people, whether consciously or not, hold the notion that Japan should not be inward-looking.
All the more for this reason, I was filled with a sense of forlornness and crisis watching the ceremony for inheriting the imperial regalia and seals. There were only Prince Akishino, crown prince to be from this day, and Prince Hitachi at the sides of Emperor Naruhito, who was standing in front of the chamberlains holding the sacred sword and seals of the three imperial regalia. Even counting Prince Hisahito, who was not attending the ceremony as he is not an adult, there existed only three male members of the imperial family who were in line of succession to the throne. Moreover, Prince Hitachi, the younger brother of the emperor emeritus, is of advanced age.
In the new Reiwa Era, Japan continues to face a wide range of issues from politics, the economy and foreign diplomacy to societal matters just as it did in the Heisei Era. However, looking at the above-mentioned situation, there is no question that imperial succession is the most pressing issue of all.
As is well-known, the bill for amending the Imperial House Law to allow women to take the throne or to allow matrilineal succession to the throne was about to be submitted to the Diet during the Koizumi administration. However, the attempt was shelved with the pregnancy of Princess Kiko, wife of now Crown Prince Akishino. Further, the discussion about female imperial family members, including the establishment of imperial branches headed by women, that was started under the Noda Cabinet was derailed halfway through. Those who felt relieved with the birth of Prince Hisahito were not a few, and the crisis had been put off. With the passing of time, however, the level of the crisis has grown.
There is a strong view that should we leave the situation as is, biologically speaking the imperial household will come to a natural end. How will we be able to overcome the crisis?
Looking into the results of one opinion poll, a majority of respondents favored the idea of having a matrilineal emperor or empress regnant. But there is a long-rooted staunch objection mainly from conservatives. Even though the opposition might possibly tolerate an empress regnant, for which historical precedents exist, as a one-off stand-in, there is an extremely strong objection toward matrilineal emperors as it would signify the end to the unbroken imperial line from time immemorial, of which the Japanese imperial family is the only case in the world.
This is why there has been an idea persistently floated to restore former imperial family branches, descendants in the male line, that were abandoned after the war. However, they have been away from the imperial family for over seven decades, and it is unknown whether a national consensus can be formed to support their sudden elevation. It cannot be said that we have such a consensus now.
This being the case, no plan we currently have is perfect, and we are constantly faced with the danger of a split in public opinion or fissures in the country. Should we override objections and embark on a certain course, it could leave a serious issue in the future with respect to the emperor as the symbol, or what we call “our emperor.” Time is limited.
At the same time, we need to have a thorough discussion. We must overcome the challenge of this seemingly contradictory task. For this to happen, we have no choice but to start the debate immediately, placing all possible options on the table with the intention of hammering out a solution.
It is truly unfortunate that such a basis for discussion has not been fostered. Who is to blame? It all boils down to the lack of a sense of crisis permeating the government and the nation. Today, we face the pressing need to develop an acute sense of crisis, rather than just bidding a reluctant farewell to Heisei or cheering the beginning of Reiwa. This could be the way to put us on the threshold of our future. We need to learn a lesson from both the Showa and Heisei eras, where we tended to avoid tackling highly contentious issues in the hope that somebody would somehow solve the problem for us.
We have a long way to go to reach a solution that will be accepted universally and cuts this Gordian knot. Such a solution may not even exist. However, “continuation of the imperial family” may be the sole national consensus we have at the moment. Thus we have no other choice but to posit this as our top priority, and strive to work toward a solution. After all, should we lose the imperial family, there would no longer be an unbroken imperial line from time immemorial for us to protect.
Keiko Chino is a freelance journalist and guest columnist of Sankei Shimbun. A earlier version of this article appeared on the The English-Speaking Union of Japan website.