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

The post-war-born emperor embarked on a new form of imperial diplomacy
NISHIKAWA Megumi / Journalist

September 5, 2023
Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress visited Indonesia for seven days from 17th to 24th June in their first international goodwill visit since their accession to the throne.

In their impressions released through the Imperial Household Agency after their return, after recounting in detail what they felt and what made them happy during their stay, they emphasized "among other things" the interaction with young people. This meant their encounter with Indonesian students and pupils interested in Japan, including Japanese language and culture, as well as Japanese children and young people living in Indonesia. Through these exchanges with the youth of the two countries, they felt "the potential of the younger generation for the further enhancement of the friendship and co-operation between our two countries".

The exchange with the Indonesian students and pupils took place at the Darma Persada University, which was established mainly by people who had studied in Japan. The young people actively exchanged opinions with Their Majesties on the Japanese language and culture, and the atmosphere was friendly, interspersed with laughter. After visiting the university, Their Majesties also visited a vocational school in an industrial park run by Japanese companies and others, where they also interacted with students.

That evening, at the hotel where Their Majesties were staying, they met with Japanese residents and JOCV members, and they listened with great interest to the Japanese youth's stories about why they were attracted to Indonesia.

Their Majesties probably felt that the presence of young Japanese and Indonesians who are interested, and studying and working, in each other's country is a great force for deepening mutual understanding, friendship and goodwill between the two countries. They probably felt once again that it is their duty to encourage such young people.

During the World War Ⅱ, Japan occupied Indonesia. At a press conference ahead of his visit, the Emperor said that it was important not to forget those who died, to deepen our understanding of past history and to foster a peace-loving spirit. During their stay, they laid flowers at the Karitaba Heroes Cemetery, where those who had contributed to Indonesia's independence were laid to rest. They also met with the descendants of former Japanese soldiers who remained in Indonesia after the war and participated in the War of Independence, and expressed their sympathy for their hardships.

Nevertheless, on the whole, Their Majesties' position was clearly future-oriented, with a focus on interaction with young people. It is interesting to note that President Joko omitted words of greetings at the welcome luncheon. The President is said to be a man who prefers to do things his own way rather than follow the script prepared by his staff, and this surprise served to relegate the history issue to the background as a result. If there had been a word, the media would have focused on what the Emperor might have said about the war and the occupation.

This attitude of the President is also a reflection of the current Indonesian public opinion. In October 1991, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, now the Emeritus Emperor and Empress, travelled to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia on their first foreign visit since their accession to the throne. At that time, then Indonesian President Suharto, in his speech at the welcome dinner, stated that 'it is not uncommon for people to become somewhat emotional when they think of the past'. This was no doubt a reflection of the average sentiment of the Indonesian people towards Japan at the time. Then, 46 years after independence, many of those who had experienced the Japanese occupation were still alive and well, and more than a few of them had mixed feelings about Japan.

The difference between the environment surrounding the visit then and now is that few people in Indonesia remember the period of Japanese occupation anymore, and the Japanese Government's efforts over the years have come to show their effects. The most representative of these is the 1977 Fukuda Doctrine, known for its three principles, such as 'Japan will build a relationship of mutual confidence and trust based on “heart-to-heart” understanding with Southeast Asian countries'. It is believed that this has promoted political dialogue, economic cooperation, and human and cultural exchange between Japan and Southeast Asia, and has significantly changed the image of Japan for the better.

However, another thing that cannot be overlooked is the role played by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko throughout the Heisei era (1989~2019). The name of Emperor Hirohito was deeply associated with the image of the militaristic Japan in foreign countries, and even at the end of the Showa period, there were voices from South-East Asian pundits who worried about Japan’s return to militarism. In the Heisei era, however, voices questioning Japan's pacifism gradually ceased to be heard.
This was largely due to the thoughtful words expressed by Emperor Akihito, who took on the weight of responsibility of his father Emperor Showa, once the supreme leader of the war, on his occasional visits to foreign countries and at the banquets for state guests, and towards the victims of war, the affected countries and the warring parties. In addition, the Emperor and Empress went on 'memorial journeys' in which they visited the places where fierce battles were fought and mourned the fallen, both Japanese and foreign nationals. Not to mention their repeated visits to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa and other war-devastated areas in Japan.

The image of Japan as a peaceful country became clearer in the Heisei era than in the post-war Showa era. Japan's reputation for following a pacifist course has become firmly established, and the trust in Japan as a member of the advanced democratic camp has become unshakeable. For example, to the best of my knowledge, not a voice has been heard from Southeast Asian countries expressing the concern that the strengthening of national security policies under the Abe administration, such as the Security Law, might lead to a resurgence of Japanese militarism.

The 30 years of the Heisei era were a period of economic stagnation for Japan, but it was also a period of great significance in its relation with the international community. This time, the present Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako were able to engage in future-oriented goodwill exchange without reserve, not only because they were no longer hampered by past history, but also because of the sincere efforts of the Emperor’s parents. From the perspective of imperial diplomacy, too, the Heisei era clearly served as a bridge between the Showa era (1925~1989) and the Reiwa era (2019~).

Future imperial diplomacy will revolve around future-oriented goodwill activities. In concrete terms, it means confirming, in light of past history, the rich achievements fostered by post-war friendly and cooperative relations, and encouraging the building of deeper relations of friendship and trust with the international community for the future. In particular, it means encouraging mutual understanding and cooperation between the young people of Japan and of other countries, who will shoulder the future of the world.

Furthermore, the fact that the present Emperor’s expertise in "water" policy and conservation is thought to add breadth and depth to the goodwill activities. This time, too, the Emperor visited a flood control facility in the capital city of Jakarta, which had been renovated with Japanese financial assistance, and asked a number of questions. That is the pump station to drain rainwater flowing into lowland areas. He also asked about drainage of the stone walls at the Borobudur Temple, a World Heritage Site.

His research, which began in his university days on 'water transport' in the Seto Inland Sea in Japan and on 'water transport' on the Thames River in the U.K., has since expanded to global issues such as sanitation, the environment and disasters from the perspective of 'water'. And his book, which contains nine chapters, from his first lecture in 1987 to his keynote address at the World Water Forum in 2018, entitled ‘From the History of Water Transport to Water in the World’, shows the deepening quest of the Emperor from local affairs to today's global issues.

A global perspective and trust in the goodwill and potential of young people. If this can be described as a 'sense of global citizenship', the current Emperor has demonstrated a part of this through his visit, and has also given us a glimpse of a new image of the Imperial Family, different from that of his parents.

(NISHIKAWA Megumi is a contributing editor of Mainichi Shimbun. This is a shortened English translation of an article that appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun evening edition on 22 August )
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川 恵 / ジャーナリスト

2023年 9月 5日
















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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The post-war-born emperor embarked on a new form of imperial diplomacy