The advent of the new year has marked the end of an era in Japan. The curtains are being drawn this April on the Heisei period, which began on January 8, 1989 and symbolised Emperor Akihito’s effort to introduce and maintain peace.
Regardless of how ceremonial his role was, Emperor Akihito remained widely respected as the guardian of his people and the symbol of unity. He was revered by his people for engaging with the youth and the elderly alike, especially the underprivileged. As the new year began, the people thronged the Tokyo Imperial Palace for their final chance to show their love and respect for the emperor. Responding to their cheers and tears, Emperor Akihito prayed for peace across the country and expressed hope that 2019 brings happiness for his people.
In all likelihood, it’s going to be a good year for Crown Prince Naruhito, Emperor Akihito’s son, as he will soon become the new emperor. Emperor Akihito set the clock for this historic moment when he announced that he will relinquish the throne on April 30, 2019 owing to his deteriorating health.
As the only monarch who enjoys the title of ‘emperor’ abdicates, the world may never know his true potential as a ruler because Akihito was reduced to a mere ceremonial figure under a constitution that he had inherited along with the throne. This was all thanks to the military and the ministers under his father Hirohito, who drove Japan into World War II.
It is ironic that Emperor Hirohito’s Showa era (from December 25,1926 to January 7, 1989), which was supposed to usher in enlightened peace, witnessed atomic bombs being dropped in Japan, forcing the so-called ‘king of kings’ to eventually surrender. As a payback for his miscalculations during WWII, Hirohito was handed a constitution that practically stripped all political powers from any future monarch. As a result, it was written in the stars that Akihito’s hands would remain tied when he became emperor.
Over the last three decades, Akihito witnessed a few upheavals, but his country steered clear of any wars. There came a time when the US needed Japan’s assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under these circumstances, the only contingent that Tokyo could offer was a self-defence force for a support-based mission.
With a new cold war taking shape, Akihito’s son may find his country in a position to flex its muscles to some extent. So, it will be very interesting to see how Japan will view Naruhito’s era. The new gengo (the Japanese era name) may also reflect whether the heir to the Chrysanthemum throne will sincerely follow his father’s legacy or carve his own path?
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stopped short of mentioning his long-cherished goal of revising the pacifist constitution. And there are signs that the heir to the throne may see his country revolutionising the canon.
In the name of self-defence, Tokyo is already investing over $300 billion dollars to upgrade its so-called military hardware. The country is on the path to rely less on the security umbrella provided by the US.
But will the new era of strengthening peace have a true fighting force? And, are there any prospects that this peace-loving nation will acquire the most sophisticated weapons? Nothing seems impossible once Japan opens the pandora’s box of amending the pacifist constitution.
In addition to these constitutional changes, a few lingering territorial disputes during WWII and the country’s colonial past also need attention. Japan must find ways to strike a permanent peace deal with neighbouring countries. Goodwill gestures from Russian and Japanese leaders had fuelled hope that a serious attempt will be made to resolve the Kuril Islands dispute. But 2018 passed without any concrete steps being taken in this regard.
The island nation is also mired in a dispute with its erstwhile rival China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which comprises five islets and three rocks of considerable strategic value. There are clear signs that this dispute, along with many other, will continue to haunt both countries for many years. Altercation with Seoul over the dispute regarding Takeshima/Dokdo islands, which include two islets and 35 rocks is another challenge.
Japan has apologised to South Korea for the horrors it has committed in the past. Yet, there is hardly a change in the situation on the ground. With sincerity and a flexible stance, the ‘comfort women’ issue can still be addressed. As far as visits to the Yasukuni shrine are concerned, Japan may find an acceptable way out.
Over the years, Japanese prime ministers have paid homage to
to the memorial site of two million Japanese soldiers who lost their lives in the country’s wars, including a few who were executed for committing war crimes.
To resolve this issue, Japan can strike a few controversial names from that list while Seoul will have to stop taking political mileage of the situation. Demanding that Tokyo admit to committing war crimes is an unrealistic expectation. It is unlikely to bear fruit at a time when Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather is described by some elements in Seoul as a “class-A war criminal”, is in power.
In order to bring both nations closer, the future monarch will have to play his part. Naruhito has learnt from his father that communicating with the people matters most. He can offer a healing touch to those South Koreans who visit Japan on exchange programmes.
Naruhito also seems to know how to remain relevant as the symbol of the nation. He has already started performing a few duties that his father is known for. But as the 126th Japanese emperor, Naruhito will never enjoy the powers that his grandfather had exercised. He can only perform the duties that his illustrious and magnanimous father is known for. And for this purpose, Naruhito will have to prove that he knows the art of remaining relevant under these circumstances. Naruhito’s test begins in three months. Till then, it is time for reflection.
The writer is a senior journalist associated with Geo News.
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