Emperor for People
On May 10, 2019, Japan welcomed its 126th emperor, Naruhito (original name Hironomiya Naruhito), to the Chrysanthemum Throne after the abdication of his father, Akihito. Born on February 23, 1960, today marks the Emperor's 60th birthday. On this special day, let us take a glimpse into the significance of Emperor Naruhito and the Japanese Imperial Family in world history.
The Japanese Imperial Family (or Imperial House of Japan) is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. The Emperor is a ceremonial head of state, with no real political power. However, they are also considered the highest form of authority in the main religion of Japan, Shinto (or Shintoism). In Shinto religion, the Emperors are believed to be living gods. This belief sprouted from the idea in Shinto religion that the Japanese Imperial Family are descendants of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. After Japan's fall in World War II, Hirohito, grandfather of Emperor Naruhito, was allegedly forced to issue a Humanity Declaration (imperial rescript), rejecting the claim of being a living god, and forfeiting the divine power he had over the state according to the Japanese constitution of 1889.
Hirohito was succeeded by his eldest son, Akihito, who is Emperor Naruhito's father. Akihito's abdication is a historic event, since he is the first to stand down from the role of Emperor in 200 years. Akihito had begun hinting about wanting to step down since 2016, but could not clearly state it due to issues with making political statements. He received permission for abdication in 2019, citing reasons of poor health and old age, having had cancer and major heart bypass surgery. The "Ceremony of the Abdication" was held in a state room of the Imperial Palace on April 30, 2019. At the stroke of midnight, the new Reiwa (English meaning, "beautiful harmony") Era began, with Emperor Naruhito ascending the throne. Japanese emperors always bring with them the advent of a new era for the people of the country. Akihito is now known as Emperor Emeritus, while his wife Michiko is known as Empress Emerita.
Emperor Emeritus Akihito reigned for 30 years, and throughout this period, was widely praised for being an emperor for the people. Even though his father, Hirohito, led Japan through World War II, Akihito is a pacifist, and takes great pride in the fact that not a single Japanese soldier was killed in war or armed conflict during his reign.
Members of the Japanese Imperial Family are usually tied down by both restrictions of tradition and also the constitution, but Akihito made it a point to break these rules and stand directly alongside the people of Japan. In 2011, an earthquake with a whopping magnitude of nine, as well as a devastating tsunami, hit northern Japan. Akihito became the first Japanese emperor in existence to address the public directly on television, and to personally meet the people affected, at an evacuation centre. Akihito and Michiko knelt down and talked to the people there, an act that was unheard of for the Japanese Imperial Family.
The soft and kind reputation of Emperor Emeritus Akihito has set the standards quite high for the new Emperor Naruhito, with the people of Japan wondering if he will follow in his father's pacifist footsteps. In many ways, Emperor Naruhito is quite different from past Emperors, due to his more modern outlook. His father gave him the opportunity to chase his dreams when he was young, and pursue the kind of education he wanted. His undergraduate days were spent at Tokyo's Gakushuin University, a prestigious institution where he gained a degree in History. He continued his studies on the history of transport on the River Thames at Oxford University's Merton College, from 1983 to 1985. He mentioned is his 1993 memoir, "The Thames and I", that his days at Oxford were the happiest times of his life. Even though he was Crown Prince and was well aware that he would ascend the throne at some point, he never gave up on his passion in the study of waterways. Thus, he became honorary president of the United Nations' Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, between 2007 and 2015.
Emperor Naruhito is known for his devotion towards his family, especially his wife, Empress Masako. Empress Masako also studied at Oxford University and is a former diplomat as she had worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was diagnosed with a stress-related disorder in 2004 because of pressure from Imperial tradition to give birth to a son. For quite some time, no male heir had been born to the family to succeed the throne, since Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako have just one daughter, Princess Aiko. According to Japan's Imperial Household Law of 1947, only men can ascend the throne, which meant there was a succession line crisis. In 2004, the then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proposed a revision of the law to allow women to inherit the throne so as to let Princess Aiko someday ascend the throne. However, all of these plans were scrapped as soon as Princess Aiko's male cousin, Prince Hisahito, was born in 2006. However, up until the birth of Prince Hisahito, Emperor Naruhito stood by Empress Masako as a strong pillar of support throughout her stress disorder.
A unique aspect of throne accession in the Japanese Imperial Family, compared to monarchies around the world, is that there is no crown for the Emperor. The accession ceremony of Emperor Naruhito involved rituals of Shinto religion, with the Emperor receiving the Imperial Treasures to symbolise him being "crowned" Emperor. According to Shinto religion, these Treasures have been handed down to the Imperial Family from the gods themselves. They are quite mysterious objects, with nobody in Japan fully sure of their whereabouts or origin. In fact, they are kept in such secrecy that replicas are used during the accession, while the real objects are spread out all over the country in different shrines. The first Imperial Treasure is the Yata no Kagami (eight-sided mirror), which is said to symbolise the divine power of the Emperor. The second Imperial Treasure is the Kusanagi no Tsurugi (grass-cutting sword), which represents the bravery of the Emperor. The third and last Treasure is the Yasakani no Magatama (a curved bead), which is made of green jade and symbolises the benevolence of the Emperor.
During the accession ceremony, Emperor Naruhito delivered his first speech to the public of Japan as the new emperor of the new era. In his speech, he recognised the gravity of his duties as emperor and said he will "bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors". He also mentioned, "I sincerely hope for the happiness of the people and further progress of the country, and for world peace." His words imply that he will most probably adhere to the peaceful route that his father, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, had taken in his rule. Even though his birthday celebration events have been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak risks, this day is still an auspicious day of hope for both Emperor Naruhito, and the people of the land of the rising sun.