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Editorial: Emperor system at a crossroads as Naruhito ascends the throne

  • May 1, 2019
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 01:55 p.m.
  • English Press

In a ceremony marking his ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1, Naruhito, the new emperor of Japan, will issue a statement before the heads of the three branches of government and other representatives of the Japanese people.


We imagine that the thoughts going through his mind are mostly about his duties–inherited from his father, now the emperor emeritus–as a “symbol of Japan and the unity of the people” and, specifically, how he should grow into those duties.


This past spring, The Asahi Shimbun conducted an opinion poll on the roles expected of the new emperor to play. The respondents were allowed to pick multiple answers.


“(The emperor’s role is to) give encouragement to the people by visiting disaster-affected areas and others” was the top answer, collecting 66 percent of the responses. A close second, at 52 percent, was, “(His role is to) promote peace by praying for the souls of the war dead.”


Both were activities to which Akihito, the emperor emeritus, and Michiko, the empress emerita, were especially committed.


Naruhito, too, has made numerous visits to disaster areas over the years to show his solidarity with survivors. And in identifying himself as an individual born after World War II, he stressed, at a news conference four years ago, his belief in the preciousness of peace.


He noted, “It is important that the history and memories of that war be conveyed accurately from the generation that lived through it to the generation that does not know about it.”


We are glad that the wishes of many Japanese citizens match the new emperor’s thinking. We hope that the symbolic nature of the emperor system, nurtured during the Heisei Era based on the principle of the sovereignty of the people and the spirit of the pacifist Constitution, will be further refined and take deeper root during Naruhito’s reign.




Over the years, Naruhito has also repeatedly voiced his commitment to his “new official duties (as emperor)” in keeping with the needs of the times.


Naruhito’s academic interest in waterways has diversified to broader research of global water issues from various aspects, such as the environment, disaster prevention and transportation. A book has just been published containing his remarks and speeches given at international conferences and universities.


The new emperor is fully capable of communicating with the rest of the world.


As for his wife, a former diplomat, Naruhito expressed his hope at a news conference in February, “In this age of globalization, I am sure that in the days ahead, there will arise undertakings for which she will be perfectly suited.”


The imperial family has been playing a vital role in international goodwill exchanges. Aside from their routine duties of visiting overseas and meeting with foreign dignitaries, Naruhito and Masako will likely work together as a symbol of Japan’s internal “internationalization,” now that the nation has opened its doors wider to foreign workers and is poised to transform itself into more of a “multi-racial” society.


The emperor emeritus once noted to the effect, “A new official duty cannot acquire true significance unless I find personal hope and interest in it. At the same time, a new official duty will emerge in the process of performing my given duty with the utmost sincerity.”


We have no doubt that the new emperor’s own style will take shape if he stays attuned to what interests him and remains his own self while conducting his daily activities.


In the meantime, the people need to constantly ask themselves what activities they want the imperial family to perform and how far, and stay ever vigilant against any deviation from, or inconsistency with, the spirit of the Constitution.


It is vital that the public refrain from excessive or inappropriate demands or expectations of the emperor, and that both the imperial family and the Japanese people strive together to achieve an ideal harmony.




The emperor’s family is always a center of attention, and the people expect to see a “happy family.”


This was certainly the case with Akihito and Michiko. As the couple were the first in history to raise their three children by themselves, they projected an image of an ideal family during the years of Japan’s rapid economic growth.


The people also got glimpses of the toughest challenges and painful adjustments Michiko had to go through as the first commoner to marry a future emperor.


And Naruhito’s family is no less alien to all the positive and negative emotions any contemporary family is bound to go through.


Masako had the misfortune–not unusual for women–of having to give up her promising career in order to marry. She then came under tremendous pressure to “bear a male heir.”

But while she struggled with her mental health issues, Naruhito remained caring and supportive, and the couple’s unconditional love for their daughter was something any parent could readily relate to.


Many people must feel familiarity and empathy with this family, superimposing their own circumstances on the imperial couple’s all-too-human heartaches and difficulties. There is no “right” or “wrong” about how to be a family.


By remaining exactly who he is and not hiding his human emotions as he lives his day-to-day-life, the emperor becomes precisely the “life-sized symbol” of the people who have to deal with all sorts of problems and difficulties of their own.




Now that a “change of reign” has taken place, one long-standing issue of how to maintain the emperor system and address matters of imperial succession needs to be examined without delay.


Presently, there are only seven members of the extended imperial family under 30 years of age, and six are female.


Since every princess loses her imperial status upon marriage, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in 2012 came up with the concept of “josei miyake”–a system under which female members would remain in the imperial family after marriage and create their own imperial houses.


But this idea was shelved immediately by the Abe Cabinet, which succeeded the Noda Cabinet.


The greatest dilemma is that the ranks of prospective heirs to the Chrysanthemum Throne are dwindling inexorably. Under the current rules of succession, Prince Hisahito, the 12-year-old nephew of Naruhito, will eventually bear the entire burden of perpetuating the imperial family, including his choice of the woman who would be his wife. The pressure this prince would eventually come under is too formidable to contemplate.


The impracticality of relying only on male members to perpetuate the emperor system has been pointed out for decades. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative support base insists on the male-only system, keeps avoiding any discussion of this subject.


Abe constantly voices his desire to ensure that the imperial family continues to flourish. But his deeds indicate the opposite.


In an addendum to the special one-off legislation paving the way for Akihito to abdicate, the Diet urged the government to discuss the matter swiftly upon the enactment of that law.


A festive atmosphere now prevails in the nation as the people celebrate the new emperor’s accession to the throne. But the reality is that the emperor system is at a very critical crossroads.

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