06.03.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

What the Emperor of Japan’s Resignation Speech Could Mean

78678787One of the most significant events of the last year in Japan was Emperor Akihito’s official speech on national television on August 8, in which he pointed out the possibility of his resignation due to health issues. The exceptional nature of this statement can explain the fact that contradictory information had been leaking to the public for half a year prior to this speech.

The acting monarch said in particular that he had been reflecting upon the duties he had to perform in relevance to his health condition over the past few years. According to him, “so far” his overall health has allowed him to perform these duties, but he is also feeling a deterioration of health both due to his age of 82 years, as well as a number of surgeries he had undergone in the past. The Emperor made it clear, using carefully measured expressions, that he would like to resign and expressed hope for understanding by the Japanese people.

The thoroughly chosen verbal execution of Akihito’s statement can be explained by its unprecedented content. Throughout the history of the Japanese monarchy there had only been one case of the acting sovereign resigning: in 1817, when the monarchy itself was a conditionality.

Its importance dramatically increased in the second half of the 19th century, when the urgency of comprehensive reforms aimed at creating a more modern Japan, which at the moment had remained a semi-feudal state after a 250-year reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, became obvious.

The revolution from above”, which at first triggered a civil war, was carried out by a group of aristocrats, led by Emperor Mutsuhito. His reign, which lasted till his death on July 30, 1912, was named “Meiji” (“Enlightened rule”). Under his rule, Japan became a modern world power.

The current Emperor Akihito is Mutsuhito’s third generation successor. His reign, which began in 1989, received a symbolical name – “Peace-making”. Each of the two previous periods, those of Akihito’s father and his grandfather’s rule, was designated by its own verbal symbolism.

It is important to note, that each of these names in some degree reflects a substantial aspect of a certain period of Japan’s continuous modernization process, which started during the second half of the 19th century. This is apart from the Shōwa period (“Enlightened Peace”), when his father, Hirohito, was in power.

For obvious reasons, historians tend to divide the Shōwa period into two: pre-war (from 1926 to 1945 inclusive) and post-war (till the day of Hirohito’s death on 7 January 1989). This is due to the fact that in the first one or two years after the end of the Pacific war, the main issue was not as much to establish whether the Shōwa period  has to continue, as to decide whether the Emperor must be handed over to the Tokyo tribunal.

Hirohito managed to escape this fate only by efforts from the commander of the Allied forces general D. MacArthur, who believed (rightfully), that the issue of a more or less peaceful management of the occupied Japan can only be resolved by keeping an Emperor as an ally, for his power in the eyes of the Japanese people has divine nature.

However, following the defeat, the monarch’s status and Japan’s entire legislative base have undergone radical changes in comparison to their pre-war status. According to the 1947 Constitution (which was put together at D. MacArthur’s headquarters), the source of power in Japan was no longer the Emperor, but the people and their elected representatives – the parliament.

The current management of all of the country’s affairs was entrusted to the government and received a formal approval of the Emperor, who became a symbol (not the head like he had been previously) of the state and of national unity. The principle of the separation of powers and equality along with changes in the system of economic management, education and training of young people were introduced.

In what was critical to the postwar period, the Japanese government attained Article 9, which does not have analogues in the constitutions of other countries. The main provisions of this article were a prescribed Japan’s “eternal” refusal to use the war as a means of solving foreign policy problems, as well as the possession of the armed forces.

Generally speaking, almost all of the post-war legislative innovations that were adopted under the pressure of occupation authorities can be regarded as a stage of sharp acceleration of that trend in the transformation of the country, which was launched in the second half of the 19th century by the Japanese elite. This was subject to the role of the military components of the state.

It is important, however, to note that a problem arose before the Mutsuhito “team” in finding a balance between the preservation of traditions and the extent of the “European” socio-political transformation. In fact, the prosecution of the “enlighteners” of “betraying the covenants of the ancestors” of the time sparked a civil war.

It is sufficient to say that the unanimous opinion of the changes in the legal framework of Japan statehood after 1945, along with the actual transfer of the recent issues of national security into the hands of the enemy, ensured rapid economic progress of the country.

However, around the turn of the millennium, a sense of “cultural trauma” began to intensify as a result of the inflicted postwar transformations. The first area of social life to be touched by the increasing “Restoration” mood was the education system. The belief that the “Basic Law on Education” of 1947 contained “too much Western and not much Japanese” increasingly began to be expressed.

The outcome of years of tumultuous debate about the nature and need to revise was its new version that was adopted in 2006, in which, in particular, there was a symbolic entry on the need to “respect the traditions and culture, as well as foster their love for our country and homeland.”

The “restoration” trend intended by this law was continued in the electoral program of the Liberal Democratic Party, which achieved a resounding victory at the end of 2012 at the early parliamentary elections. Among other things, the program spoke of the need to restore the Emperor’s status as head of state and to show respect for national symbols, such as the national flag.

Quite fitting into the “restoration” trend is the evident since the early 90s desire of the Japanese elites to lift restrictions in the field of defense and security stated in Article 9 of the current Constitution. As repeatedly noted in the NEO, finding the solution to this problem is the main objective of the leader of the LDP and the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s entire political career.

Today we can definitely say Abe will again be leading the LDP on the next year’s parliamentary elections. There are also no visible tendencies that can prevent LDP from winning them and from Abe becoming the prime minister (for the third time). Therefore, the “restoration” trend will continue (and will pick up its pace) to dominate the process in changing Japan’s socio-political structure.

Japan is entering a period of major changes and, following the historical tradition, they have to be led by the new Emperor, whose rule will receive a name of its own.

Of course, time spares no one and the arguments that the Emperor Akihito used to explain his intention to retire, are quite convincing. But it is hardly a coincidence that his speech took place at the moment, when the process of a comprehensive “renovation” of the country has just showed a tendency to accelerate

However, his heir (the 56-year old Naruhito, Akihito’s eldest son), cannot yet ascend the throne, due to the fact that there is no legal procedure in the Imperial Household Law,  for the replacement of the still living monarch.

The preparation of the necessary legislative amendments since October 2016 has been handled by a special government commission comprised of 16 lawyers. The draft of the legislation is subject to government approval, followed by its submission to the current session of Parliament.

Currently there are reports on the emerging differences in commissions whose members still share the mood “to meet” the wishes of the current Emperor. The public apparently wants the same. The consideration by the Parliament of a draft of the law has been scheduled for May. If it is approved, Akihito will leave his post on January 1, 2019.

The new Emperor’s occupation of the throne will be accompanied by the emergence of a new meme, which will mark the ongoing process of the profound transformation of the socio-political, cultural and military image of Japan. It is quite possible that something similar to the word “restoration” will be used.

As regards the different calibers of regional and global players, they will have to accept the return of Japan to the “big geopolitical game,” since it is one of its leading members. For that matter, they will have to accept Germany’s as well – Japan’s ally during the Second World War.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” 


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