Emperor Akihito Was a Force for Peace in an Increasingly Nationalistic Japan

Emperor Akihito Was a Force for Peace in an Increasingly Nationalistic Japan
Credit: Kyodo / Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

The now-bygone Heisei imperial era marked an impressive internal resistance to Japan's rising right-wing forces.

After World War II, the new American-drafted Japanese constitution stripped all political power from the emperor and made his role a symbolic, albeit still highly visible, one. Complying with the constitution, Emperor Akihito, who marked the end of the Heisei imperial era by abdicating on May 1 this year, refrained from making political statements during his 30 years on the throne.

Yet a brief look at his actions during his three decades in power shows a man who was keen to preserve Japan’s post-war pacifism that is being increasingly challenged by right-wing influence on its current political leaders.

Credit: Kyodo / Reuters / TPG
Japan's outgoing Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko bow as they leave a ritual called Taiirei-Seiden-no-gi, a ceremony for the Emperor's abdication at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on April 30, 2019.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly expressed his desire to change Japan’s pacifist constitution, with the specific aim of revising Article 9 that limits the Japanese military to self-defense. Establishment of a regular military force with a constitutional change can potentially aggravate Japan’s existing territorial disputes with Taiwan and China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, the two Koreas over Dokdo/Takeshima Island, and Russia over the Southern Kurils/Northern Territories.

International analysts point out that behind Abe’s desire for remilitarization is the increasing political influence of right-wing groups, who espouse a sort of militant nationalism associated with respect for the war dead, including many convicted war criminals.

However, Emperor Akihito played his part in restricting the influence of such right-wing groups. Over the years, he visited many battlegrounds of World War II, including China, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, Saipan, and Palau, to call for preservation of peace, implicitly countering the message of the nationalist elements increasingly embraced by the Abe administration.

The Heisei emperor’s public calls for peace, without being explicitly political, acted as a counterbalance to the growing right-wing influence in Japanese politics. The respect he receives from the Japanese populace and beyond meant that every move of the Heisei emperor was highlighted by mainstream media. And his voice has been difficult for right-wingers to counter given their ideology of respecting Japanese traditions, of which the emperor is at the heart.

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Japan's new Emperor Naruhito attends a ritual called Chokushi-Hakken-no-gi, a ceremony of dispatching Imperial Envoys to the Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) and Mausolea of Emperor Jinmu and the 4 recent emperors up to Emperor Showa, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, May 8, 2019.

It is difficult to know whether the imperial household can continue to act as a counterbalance against the Japanese right-wing in the new Reiwa era. Little is known about the attitude of the Reiwa emperor Naruhito toward Japan’s war-time past and relationships with Asian neighbors that once suffered in World War II. True to the limits of his symbolic role, he has yet to make any moves that would suggest any political leaning.

There is no doubt, however, that many people residing in Asia desire the continuation of the Heisei emperor’s public calls for peace under the new Reiwa emperor. Emperor Akihito’s atonement for the country’s destructive war-like past helped to smooth Japan’s international image that would have been much more confrontational and divisive had more right-wing groups claimed the spotlight. It is in the interest of continuing peace in Asia for the Reiwa emperor to inherit the stance of his father.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens

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