Japan paves the way for a new emperor

Japan prepares for a new era


The contrast could not be starker. Tokyo, one of the world’s most modern cities, is home to sushi-serving robots, all-singing all-dancing toilets and bullet trains. Right in the centre of it, walled and moated, lies the green enclave of the Imperial Palace, home to the world’s oldest monarchy. The family is headed by the emperor, who in Shinto religion is said to descend from the Sun Goddess and must carry out daily religious duties and rituals, such as planting the first rice of the year.

In 2018 Japan has a chance to consider the place of this most traditional of imperial households as the country prepares for the abdication of Emperor Akihito, who will have celebrated his 84th birthday at the turn of the year. When he steps aside, probably in March 2019 but possibly as early as the end of 2018, he will be the first Japanese royal to do so in almost two centuries, ushering in his son and a new era. (Japanese name their periods and years according to the occupant of the Chrysanthemum throne; 2018 will be Heisei 30.)

Naruhito, who will turn 57 in 2018, will find it hard to fill his father’s shoes. The grey-haired, twinkly-eyed Akihito has carved out a role for an institution that was both unpopular and controversial when he took it over in 1989. Service to his father, Emperor Hirohito, who was then regarded as a god in human form, motivated and justified Japanese military aggressions. This culminated in defeat and devastation at the end of the second world war. 

Akihito has acted as healer-in-chief. The emperor is barred from political acts, but he has cleverly stretched the remit of his role. He has travelled around Asia apologising for Japan’s wartime excesses, unlike the country’s politicians, many of whom think there is nothing to say sorry for. No one is left with any doubt as to his liberal bent; insiders gossip of his dislike of Japan’s leaders. 

At home, he has won over the people by making the royals approachable. They appear rarely in public and when they do are expected to behave as instructed by the imperial household agency, the public body in charge of the royals (so secretive that it is known to withhold information from the government). Akihito has been frequently pictured kneeling with victims of earthquakes and floods. He receives standing ovations when he attends public events.

Naruhito is said to be similar to his father. But he will have to work hard to portray the same image as ojiisan (grandfather) of the nation. For one thing, hawkish politicians would like to stop him. They hark back to the days when the imperial head was more than the ceremonial symbol that the post-war American-written constitution defines him as; aloof from the population and with no clear opinions other than in the divine and supreme nature of Japan. 

The monarchy’s popularity may fall, but there will be no push for Japan to become a republic. Even so, the imperial household faces a serious problem. The family lacks heirs. It currently includes just 18 members and the majority are out of the running because they are female. Only one of the four heirs, Hisahito, the 11-year-old nephew of Naruhito, is young. Japan may have to reopen a shelved debate on whether to allow princesses who marry commoners to remain in the family (currently they must leave) or to allow empresses—a move that conservatives argue would sully the institution.

Party of the rising star

Japan will face far more than imperial intrigue in 2018. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, enjoyed a big win in the snap election of the lower house in October 2017. Although voters are becoming tired of Mr Abe (many cast a ballot for him because of the lack of a trusted alt­ernative), he has led the Liberal Democratic Party to victory in three general elections. He stands in good stead to win a third term as party leader in 2018. If he does so, he is likely to go down in history by becoming country’s longest-serving post-war prime minister in late 2019. 

Mr Abe has much to tackle in 2018. Japan is upgrading its defences to counter an expansionary China and North Korea, which is pressing ahead with its nuclear programme and fired two ballistic missiles over Japan in 2017. Some fear that a future missile could hit the ­co­untry by accident, or, in the worst scenario, deliberately target American military bases there. 

The easy part for Japan is buying new hardware. The harder part is a discussion on whether to revise Article 9 of the constitution and recognise Japan as a more normal military power. This is Mr Abe’s goal. He has pledged to do so by 2020 and has paved the way by retaining the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority in the lower house. But it will not be easy. Making the change requires backing from two-thirds of both houses of the Diet and a majority in a referendum. A large swathe of the population remains wary of constitutional change. 

To please them, Mr Abe must continue his efforts to revitalise the economy. Japan has enjoyed a good run of late. Nominal GDP is increasing and wages are starting to go up. But people are yet to feel bullish and spend more: the 2% inflation goal set by the Bank of Japan remains far off. Japan must carry out much-talked-about labour reforms so people can easily move jobs and to stem the country’s culture of overwork and underproductivity.

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