Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Pressing issue of the new imperial era, Reiwa
CHINO Keiko / Journalist

June 25, 2019
The new imperial era “Reiwa” started, putting an end to the 31-year Heisei era.
It was approximately three years since the Emperor Emeritus manifested his will to stand down till the new Emperor ascended to the throne. Succession of the Chrysanthemum Throne followed by abdication was an unprecedented event in the history of constitutional government, something no Japanese had ever experienced. As it was a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in real life, various matters of concerns and anxieties had been raised pending the transition. However, despite such apprehensions, the transition process has so far been successful, receiving reactions that are far more positive than had been expected.

On April 30th, many people stood in front of the Imperial Palace despite the rain, as if to regret the parting with the last day of Heisei era. Then came May 1st, the day of the introduction of the new era name. On May 4, signaling the change of the mood, more than a hundred thousand people from the jubilant nation gathered in front of the Imperial Palace waving little Japanese flags, to take part in the People’s Visit to the Palace for the Enthronement Greeting.

Upon being interviewed for TV, people commented, “I came here at 3:00 am”, “I hope the peace enjoyed in Heisei will continue on to Reiwa”, “the young generations like us are responsible for shaping the Reiwa era”, “I am soon retiring, while the Emperor is taking on a big role from here. I wish him all the best” and so forth. Looking at those people commenting, I felt that the “Emperor as the symbol”, which was the consequence of defeat in the Second World War, had now come truly to embody the unity of the people. Needless to mention, this is the result of the tireless efforts of both the Emperor Emeritus and Empress Emerita, who had always remained “close to the people” in their thoughts throughout their reign. However, in hindsight, the nation of Japan had also supported the Emperor’s never-ending endeavor to “seek an appropriate answer to the question of how the symbol should be.”

Watching the previously mentioned TV interviews with such thoughts in mind, I felt positive looking into the modern image of the imperial family held by the nation, where quite a huge number of people showed expectations towards the new emperor for his “active role in the International arena.” I felt that this is a sign that Japanese people, whether consciously or not, held the notion that Japan should not be inward-looking.

All the more for this reason, I was filled with a sense of forlornness and crisis watching the Ceremony for Inheriting the Imperial Regalia and Seals. There were only Prince Fumihito, Crown Prince-to-be from this day, and Prince Hitachi at the sides of the Emperor standing in front of the chamberlains holding the sacred sword and seals of “the three imperial regalia.” Even when counting Prince Hisahito, who was not attending the ceremony as he was not yet an adult male, there existed only three male members of the imperial family who were in line of succession to the throne. Moreover, Prince Hitachi, younger brother of the Emperor Emeritus, is of advanced age.

In the new era Reiwa, Japan continues to face a wide range of issues from politics, economy, foreign diplomacy, to societal matters just as it did in the Heisei era. However, looking at the above-mentioned situation, there is no question that imperial succession is the most pressing issue of all.

As is well known, the bill for amending the Imperial Household Act so as to allow women to take the throne or to allow matrilineal succession to the throne was about to be submitted to the Diet back in the Koizumi cabinet. However, the attempt had been shelved with the pregnancy of Princess Kiko of Akishino. Further, discussion on female imperial family members including the establishment of imperial branches headed by women, which was started under the Noda cabinet, was derailed halfway through. Those who felt relieved with the birth of Prince Hisahito were not a few, and the crisis had been put off. However, with the passing of time, the level of the crisis is further heightened.

There is a strong view that should we leave the situation as is, biologically speaking, the imperial household will come to a natural end. How would we be able to overcome the crisis?

Looking into the results of opinion poll, while a majority favors the idea of having a matrilineal emperor or empress regnant, there is a long-rooted staunch objection mainly from the conservatives. Even though the opposition might possibly tolerate an empress regnant, for which historical precedents exist, as a one-off stand-in, there is an extremely strong objection towards matrilineal emperors as it would signify the end to the unbroken imperial line from time immemorial, of which the Japanese imperial family is the only case in the world. This is why there has been an idea persistently floated to restore ex-imperial family branches, descendants in the male line, that were abandoned after the war. However, they have broken away from the imperial family for over 7 decades since the end of the war, and the question is whether there will be national consensus to support their sudden elevation. We can hardly say that we have such consensus.

Such being the case, no plan we have at the current stage is perfect, and we are constantly faced with the danger of split in public opinion or fissures in the country. Should we override objections and embark on a certain course, it could leave a serious issue in the future with respect to the emperor as the symbol, or what we call “our emperor”. Time is limited. At the same time, we need to have a thorough discussion. We must overcome the challenge of this seemingly contradictory task. For this to happen, we have no choice but to start the debate immediately, laying out all possible options on the table with a view to hammering out a solution.

It is truly unfortunate that such a basis for discussion has not been fostered at all. Who are to blame? It all boils down to the lack of sense of crisis permeating the government and the nation. Today, we are pressed with the need for having an acute sense of crisis, rather than just bidding a reluctant farewell to Heisei or congratulating the beginning of Reiwa. This could be the way to put us on the threshold of our future. We need to learn a lesson from both Showa and Heisei era where we tended to avoid tackling highly contentious issues, in the hope that somebody would somehow solve the problem for us.

We have a long way to go to reach a solution that would be accepted universally and cuts the Gordian knot. Such a solution may not even exist after all. However, “continuation of the imperial family” may be the sole national consensus we have at the moment. Thus we have no other choice but to posit this as our top priority, and strive to work for a solution. After all, should we lose the imperial family, there would no longer be the unbroken imperial line from time immemorial for us to protect.

Chino Keiko is a freelance journalist and Guest Columnist of the Sankei Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

千野 境子 / ジャーナリスト

2019年 6月 25日












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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Pressing issue of the new imperial era, Reiwa