Japanese emperor hints at end of peaceful era

The People’s Emperor: In addition to his royal duties, Akihito is an expert in goby fish. © PA

The head of the world’s oldest monarchy has revealed his desire to step down. He will be known as the emperor of ‘peace everywhere’ — but could Japan’s age of pacifism be coming to an end?

Crowds gathered in Japan’s capital city as large screens broadcast the face of a smartly dressed 82-year-old, looking kindly into the camera. Emperor Akihito is the latest monarch in a royal family that stretches back 2,600 years — and yesterday he made his second televised address. He said the decline in his ‘fitness level’ has led him to ‘reflect’ on his 28 years as emperor.

As he outlined the extensive (and exhausting) duties of the emperor in Japanese society, he did not say the word ‘abdicate’. Retiring would require a change in Japanese law, and even to suggest it would break the rules which keep him from ‘meddling’ in politics. But many have taken the speech as a reflection of his desire to do just that — and the government has said it will ‘seriously’ consider it.

After their reign, each Japanese emperor is renamed to reflect the era they ruled over. Akihito’s father Hirohito is now known as Showa, or ‘Radiant Japan’. It was under his name that the country invaded China, slaughtered millions, and bombed Pearl Harbor in the second world war.

But Akihito will be known as Heisei: ‘Peace Everywhere’. Two years after America’s nuclear weapons ended the war in 1945, Japan adopted a pacifist constitution which banned it from military action overseas. Since Akihito took over in 1989 he has expressed ‘deep remorse’ for Japan’s actions, and dedicated his life to promoting peace and modernising the imperial family.

Next year, the constitution will be 70 years old. But Japan’s commitment to pacifism may not last much longer. In July, its government won a landslide victory, coming close to the two-thirds majority that it needs to remove ‘article nine’ of the constitution, which bans war.

The result would need to be approved in a referendum, but Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has often talked about trying. China and North Korea are both getting more aggressive; his supporters argue that Japan has a responsibility to stand up to them.

Peace out?

Most of the public want Japan to stay the strictly peaceful country embodied by its emperor. It is a shining example of a wealthy democracy that refuses to get involved in bloodshed overseas. Losing that would be a terrible shame for the rest of the world. Besides, removing article nine might end up making matters worse if other Asian countries feel threatened.

But those in favour of changing the constitution argue that the military ban is a humiliating and out-of-date punishment for crimes committed by an entirely different generation. Japan is a stable and successful nation, they point out — it should not be muzzled when it could play an important role in restraining the more dangerous countries surrounding it.

You Decide

  1. Should Japan end its seven decades of pacifism?
  2. ‘The only way to achieve peace is not to go to war.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Imagine your country also has a tradition of renaming its head of state (a monarch or president) after the era they presided over. What words would you use to describe its current leader?
  2. Write a short biography of another Japanese emperor or empress, explaining the impact they had on the country.

Some People Say...

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

Albert Einstein

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does it matter what an elderly emperor thinks?
Japanese emperors are no longer considered ‘gods’. But Akihito is extremely popular, and the country still uses its emperors to measure time: currently in the 28th year of Heisei, Japan will reset to year one when Akihito’s son takes over. So even though the emperor has no political power, the values he embodies are still seen as the heart and soul of Japan.
Could Japan really go to war soon?
Not straight away — at the moment, Prime Minister Abe is focused on putting into effect the financial promises he made during the election (known as ‘Abenomics’). Now he must also decide whether to change the constitution to allow Akihito to retire. If his government does try to revoke pacifism, it will probably be in a couple of years.

Word Watch

2,600 years
Officially, Akihito is the 125th emperor of the imperial line that began in 660 BCE with the legendary Emperor Jimmu.
Second
The first was in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of the country. Akihito tried to reassure the country by encouraging ‘each and every Japanese’ to help each other.
China
Japan invaded China in 1931, and again in 1937. It made an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1938 and the war with China continued until 1945.
Millions
Although estimates vary, Japan killed anywhere between three and ten million people during the second world war. This included people in China, Indonesia and Korea, as well as western prisoners of war.
Pearl Harbor
Japan bombed the American Navy base in Hawaii in 1941, leading to the US involvement in the second world war. Around 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack.
Modernising
Akihito’s wife, Empress Michiko, was the first commoner to marry into the imperial family. Their three children were all raised in the same household — unlike Akihito, who was separated from his siblings as a child.

Subjects

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