I found it quite amusing that a couple of British mainstream broadcasters contacted and asked me to talk about the abdication of Emperor Akihito. The country of the Queen and the Royal Family is very much interested in this historical event that is happening for the first time in 200 years! I gathered some information to talk on BBC Radio 5Live, but I didn't quite give all away, so here is a little note for anyone interested in the subject.
▶︎Why is it a big deal?
A lot of people are talking like this is significant because the abdication is happening for the first time in 200 years. As much as this is true, when we look at the longer history of Japan, abdication happened more than 60 times, and considering the Emperor Akihito being 125th Emperor, it’s actually not such a rare thing after all. So I think the significance lies more in the modern history of Japan.
▶︎In the modern history of Japan
After The Meiji Revolution in 1868, which is the practical modernisation of our country from Samurai sort of era, the Japanese constitution and the Imperial Household Laws were formed. Since then the abdication was not permitted because it was believed to cause social disorders empowering the Imperial Household by having both the emperor and his father or forcing the existing emperor out of power.
And what is more complicated, after WWII, the new constitution, which is the current version, stipulated that the emperor is the ‘Symbol’ of Japanese country and people. It means that he is not allowed to have any influence on the politics.
So when Emperor Akihito expressed his intention to abdicate, there wasn’t an easy way to change the law because if the new law to allow abdication is passed based on the emperor’s will, it’s technically against the constitution.
▶︎The modern Emperor
But the new law to allow abdication was well supported in the Parliament and also by the general public although it remains as an exception specially made for Emperor Akihito and it does not apply to the future emperors. The nation sympathised with him getting old and still running around for official duties and states affairs even after having gone through the couple of surgeries.
I think this is, in a way, an answer to the questions such as how the Emperor should be as the national symbol, and how he could serve the people as an elderly man in the ageing society.
▶︎Is there any movement to demolish the monarchy?
There are always mixed opinions around it just like other countries that have monarchy. We have the long lasting hereditary Monarchy, which is said to be the oldest in the world and a part of our tradition. As long as the royal family carries the cultural and historical meanings rather than political and religious, I don't think there would be enough debate to change the article of the constitution to demolish the monarchy as a whole in the near future.
▶︎Is it getting closer to the possibility of female monarch?
We are a bit traditional and conservative as a nation. So that still looks like a different issue that needs to be further discussed. But this series of events surrounding the abdication has shown that it’s possible to make changes in the laws related to our monarchy. So it might play some role on the other matters in the Imperial Household Laws.
▶︎Is the Japanese Royal Family popular?
Two of the princesses grown in their 20’s and they are internationally educated beautiful ladies. They studied in the UK as well. The Princess Mako, the eldest daughter of the new emperor’s younger brother Fumihito, got engaged recently. But soon after, some financial problems of her fiancé’s and his mother came up to the surface, that resulted in the postponement of their marriage. The royal wedding and the Olympic combination could have been a boost to the popularity of the royal family. That was a bit unfortunate.
▶︎Is it festive?
People are really excited about the beginning of the new era. Traditionally the coronation of new emperor only occurs following the decease of the previous emperor and the funeral. But at this occasion, it is purely festive.
Every time the new emperor is enthroned, a new name is given to the period of his reign and we often use it instead of the Christian years in business and administrative purposes. The name of new era was announced a month or so ago, and it was really well received. So people are embracing the exciting start of the new period. It is very similar to the celebration of the millennium when it turned 1999 to 2000. We get to have new eras a bit more frequently than every 1000 years though!
▶︎What is the meaning of Reiwa, the name of Naruhito's reign?
According to the explanation of The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan, the translation of Reiwa is ‘Beautiful Harmony’ The word was taken from a passage of Manyoshu, which is the Oldest Collection of Japanese poems written about 1200 years ago. People seem to like this new name a lot.
▶︎10 consecutive national holidays?!
1st of May became a national holiday, just for this year though, to celebrate the coronation, that created 10 consecutive days-off combined with a series of bank holidays called Golden Week and two weekends. It is also said this is to avoid the panic of computer system errors similar to the Year 2000 Problem that we faced 19 years ago if you remember.
Although I am not sure how people celebrate this event because it only happened 200 years ago and not in my lifetime (I was born in Hirohito's era Showa), it is reported that 200,000 people are expected to going to the imperial palace to be a part of historical moment.
TV channels also plans the special programming to remember the era of Heisei and to wish for the great new era. One chapter is ending and the new one opens. Spring, which is the beginning of school year as well as fiscal year, is full of joy and excitement for us Japanese!