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Editorial: High hopes for Emperor Naruhito as symbol of state in Reiwa era

  • May 2, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

The handover of the Imperial Throne from 85-year-old Emperor Akihito to 59-year-old Emperor Naruhito is a welcome move.


New Emperor Naruhito attended the “Sokui-go-Choken-no-gi” ceremony on May 1 in which he met representatives of the people for the first time since his enthronement. In his address he said, “I swear that I will act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them.”


His oath corresponds with the path his father Emperor Emeritus Akihito took in his 30-year reign. The new Emperor has expressed his will to basically take over the ideal way an emperor should act as the symbol, which his father established during the previous Heisei era. This is natural considering that many members of the public supported the activities Emperor Naruhito’s predecessor carried out.


When ascending to the Imperial Throne in 1989, then Emperor Akihito pledged to “abide by the Constitution together with the people of Japan and fulfill my duties in accordance with it.” The wording of Emperor Naruhito’s reference to the Constitution is slightly different from his father’s, but the new Emperor’s basic attitude toward the supreme law is apparently the same as his father’s.


When he was crown prince, the new Emperor said he offered silent prayers with his parents on the occasions of June 23 Okinawa Memorial Day, which marks the end of the Battle of Okinawa, the atomic-bombing anniversaries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, respectively, and the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan. He also said he visited these areas to engrave people’s plights into his heart. Emperor Naruhito will certainly continue to console the souls of the war dead and long for peace, just as his father has done.

At the same time, he expressed his will to pursue official duties that fit with the times, saying, “The demands of society for official duties (the Emperor should perform) will change in response to changes of the times.”


Emperor Naruhito’s lifetime work has been to address the water issue. This is a global problem relating to natural disasters, the environment, poverty and armed conflicts. He said he made up his mind to tackle the issue when he saw women wait for hours until a container was filled with water from a well during his visit to Nepal.


Emperor Naruhito delivered speeches at the first Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in southwestern Japan in 2007 as well as at U.N. conferences, underscoring the importance of addressing the water issue.


The new Emperor studied at the University of Oxford for about two years from 1983, during which he lived at the university dormitory. This experience helped him broaden his vision to the world.


Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, who was a diplomat, are expected to fully use their international experience to contribute to Japan’s exchanges with various countries.

Empress Masako has not completely recovered from illness although her condition has been improving. Therefore, it is inevitable that she will limit her official duties.


The new Empress, who is particularly considerate to elderly people, children and those with disabilities, has participated in events aimed at promoting seeing-eye dogs and visited care homes for children who cannot live with their parents and guardians. Her efforts to support socially vulnerable people will certainly win empathy from the public. The Empress will likely take over the activities of Empress Emerita Michiko who placed emphasis on social welfare, and further expand these fields.


The latest Imperial succession went smoothly. However, grave concerns remain as to whether stable Imperial succession can be ensured in the future.


Article 2 of the Constitution stipulates that the Imperial Throne “shall be dynastic” and the Imperial House Law states that “the Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage.” With the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, the only Imperial heirs junior to the Emperor are his younger brother Crown Prince Akishino and his son Prince Hisahito.


When 59-year-old Emperor Naruhito grows old, 53-year-old Crown Prince Akishino will also be at an advanced age, possibly sparking discussions on Imperial succession. Prince Hisahito, now 12, will eventually ascend to the Imperial Throne, but it will become increasingly difficult to stick to the rule of Imperial succession by a male offspring in the male line.


A key point of contention in debate on Imperial succession is whether to open the way for female members of the Imperial Household and those in the female line to ascend to the throne. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had once suggested that the government would launch discussions on Imperial succession immediately after the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito. However, he later modified this stance to say that such debate will begin in November or later after a series of enthronement-related ceremonies are completed. Considering the seriousness of the issue, discussions should be launched soon.


A panel of experts released a report in November 2005, under the administration of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, recommending that female members of the Imperial Family and those in the female line be allowed to accede to the throne. However, the government stopped seeking to amend the Imperial House Law to that end after then Princess Kiko became pregnant with Prince Hisahito. The first administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which continued for a year from 2006 to 2007, shelved the issue.


Conservatives insist that the essence of the Imperial system would fundamentally change unless Japan sticks to Imperial succession by a male offspring in the male line. However, the issue is not whether to prioritize male or female members of the Imperial Family in Imperial succession, but that the Imperial system itself could face a crisis.


The number of members of the Imperial Household who are supposed to perform various official duties has been decreasing. Female members leave the Imperial Household and become commoners after they marry. It is necessary to consider whether to allow female members to establish their Imperial Family branches after marriage so that they can continue to perform official duties as members of the Imperial Household.


It is the responsibility of politicians to hold constructive discussions on the issue by transcending their ideological conflicts.

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