In Abdication, Akihito Shapes Japan’s National Memory

 /  June 16, 2017, 9:36 a.m.


Akihito’s abdication should remind the Japanese people of the importance of reconciling with their nuanced past.

Ever since World War II, Japan has struggled with right-wing nationalism that seeks to whitewash the country’s imperial past, which has risked destabilizing the entire region. Over the years, Japanese nationalists have claimed that early-twentieth-century Japanese aggression in the Asia-Pacific was justified, that World War II was a justly waged war, and that a multitude of Japanese war crimes should not even be acknowledged, much less apologized for. This revisionist history, which Japanese nationalists promulgate, threatens to alienate nations like China and South Korea, whose citizens suffered mightily from Japan’s imperial dominion.

These right-wing revisionist views remain mostly a minority standpoint in Japan, but the government’s unwillingness to actively acknowledge and continue to make amends for past transgressions impedes stability in the Asia-Pacific. There is also a moral and spiritual crisis at hand: every society should strive to understand and embrace its complicated past to continue maturing and progressing, both in domestic culture and international relations. In a post-fact environment, the value of historical truth has never been higher.

Thankfully, Japanese Emperor Akihito seems to understand that value. Akihito is the son of Emperor Hirohito, who led Japan during World War II, the period in which the devastating consequences of Japanese nationalism were most evident. Born in 1933, he lived through Japan’s imperial era and World War II and experienced from a young age the transformation of the Japanese imperial family and of Japanese society in the late twentieth century. After his father’s death in 1989, Akihito assumed the Chrysanthemum Throne, presiding over a far less tumultuous or deadly nation, and promoted the pacifism enshrined in the Japanese post-war constitution.

However, Akihito is currently 83 years old and his health has been in recent decline, as he has undergone surgical treatment for his heart and for prostate cancer. He has expressed concern over his ability to perform the duties his ceremonial position requires; although Japanese law does not currently permit the emperor to abdicate, plans have been announced for Akihito to abdicate at the beginning of 2019, with his son Prince Naruhito succeeding him. The Japanese people should accept Akihito’s coming abdication wholeheartedly, but they also ought to follow Akihito’s example and take a moment to reflect on Japan’s imperial past—and the progress that still needs to be made when remembering that past.

The Emperor of Japan’s role in Japanese society has historically alternated between a ceremonial symbol of the nation and an active ruler. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, imperial rule in Japan was reinstated, and the Emperor came to embody Japanese sovereignty and exceptionalism and was viewed as a living god. When Hirohito became Emperor in 1926, he was charged with leading one of the world’s rising economic and imperial powers. Although Hirohito was the official head of state in Japan during Japan’s militarization and perpetration of World War II, he has been largely portrayed as a benevolent figurehead with no real power within the government. The United States refrained from prosecuting Hirohito for war crimes, possibly to prevent widespread revolt throughout Japan (given that the Japanese at the time still considered him a god). Some historians have since convincingly disputed the image of Hirohito as a relatively innocent figurehead during the war, claiming that his will was an active force that drove Japanese imperialism.

After World War II, Japanese Emperor Hirohito was forced to renounce his status as a living god and work towards rebuilding a democratic Japan under US influence. Nevertheless, the Emperor’s prominence during this era has led to Japanese militarism and the exalted position of the emperor becoming increasingly intertwined in Japanese society and history. Although the cult-like reverence of the Emperor that pervaded Japan’s psyche during World War II no longer exists, the Emperor wields significant respect and carries weighty influence as a ceremonial and cultural figurehead.

The Japanese government has never officially apologized for their transgressions during World War II; some Japanese conservative politicians have drawn considerable criticism for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where military and political figures that were convicted of war crimes are enshrined. The Japanese right-wing agenda is nowhere more apparent than in their attempts to influence education. In the past, right-leaning Japanese intellectuals have criticized the discussion of Japanese war crimes in US textbooks; within Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has released textbooks for Japanese students designed to instill in them a “patriotic tone” and blur the line between fact and fiction for Japan’s actions during World War II. Japan has even had internal controversies over their recollection of history, such as in textbooks that implied that Japanese soldiers did not force Okinawans to commit compulsory mass suicide during the Battle of Okinawa (the accuracy of which has been disputed).

Although Abe is not as much of a hardline right-winger as some fringe political elements in Japan, he is far from a democratic pacifist. Japanese conservatives and nationalists like Abe who believe that Japan should amend Article Nine of their constitution—which affirms that Japan will not participate in war—thus look to the enduring imperial legacy of the Chrysanthemum Throne as a means of furthering their political objectives. The Throne has always been a symbol of tradition, even as Japan has embraced modernity. The country’s right wing clings to its imperial connotations as part of their political ideology. Japan has long struggled to come to terms with its past, and the continuing existence of the Chrysanthemum Throne—albeit a minimized existence without legitimate political authority—provides right-wingers with the option to avoid doing so.

To his credit, Akihito has shown himself to be acutely aware of Japan’s imperial past and his father’s role in that past. Japan’s postwar constitution forbids the Emperor from direct involvement in politics and identifies him only as “a symbol of the State and of the unity of the People.” Rather than help fuel the right-wing Japanese narrative of the twentieth century, Akihito has used his authority to advocate for peace, remembrance, and mourning to help move Japan—and all others who suffered in the Pacific Theater of World War II—carry the past with them moving forward. To prevent Japan from forgetting the horrors of war, Akihito introduced four “days of mourning” coinciding with critical dates from World War II.

On a number of occasions Akihito has directly addressed the Japanese people with thinly veiled critiques of Abe’s attempts to increase Japan’s power in foreign policy, calling for Japan to instead learn from its troubled recent history and continue in its rejection of its historic imperialism. His father Hirohito lived a life defined by a crossroads between aggressive warfare and peace-building; Akihito has thoroughly embraced the latter initiative during his reign. By doing so, he has effectively impeded right-wingers’ ability to use Japan’s imperial legacy as a fan for the flames of modern militarism through his cultural and spiritual authority. Although Abe is not as extreme of a right-winger as others in Japan, his appeals to amend Article Nine and encourage Japanese foreign power have been stymied by Hirohito’s calculated opposition.

Despite their conflicting attitudes towards issues of Japanese military history and modern foreign policy, Abe’s cabinet approved a bill to legalize Akihito’s abdication (the bill, though, is explicitly worded so as to prevent future emperors from claiming the right to abdicate from it, making it an aberration of sorts). This is a great victory for Akihito and his agenda: although the far-right wishes to use the Chrysanthemum Throne to promote their ideology, Abe was nonetheless compelled to respect the Emperor’s wishes and grant him the right to abdicate. The right wing’s devotion to the Emperor, in a sense, actually will allow Akihito to abdicate without submitting to their nationalist demands for tradition.

Although he is barred from active political discourse under the provisions of Japan’s postwar constitution, the Emperor remains a silent and steadfast force in Japanese society. After all, it was Hirohito’s Jewel Voice Broadcast, in which he announced Japan’s surrender to the United States and asked his people to “endure the unendurable,” that convinced the Japanese people (who at that point believed him to be a god) to concede. Although the Emperor’s role in Japanese politics and foreign policy is no longer the same as it was then, Japan today can similarly use Akihito’s abdication to learn from his messages as his reign comes to a close.

As years continue to pass, memories of World War II (not just in Japan but the entire world) will progressively fade away. Though images of the conflict will remain with us, the stories of the actual lived horrors that generation were forced to endure will become increasingly subject to historical revisionism and shifting narratives, often at the whim of contemporary political interests. Abe’s nationalist approach to understanding the past has already demonstrated as much. As Akihito’s reign as Emperor comes to a close, the Japanese people should follow his lead in remembering the past not just for the sake of not forgetting, but in order to remember responsibly: to accept Japan’s past transgressions for what they were and help all those still affected by World War II’s legacy to continue to move forward.

Crown Prince Naruhito, who will succeed Akihito, has followed in his father’s pacifist footsteps: he has noted that Japan should “look back humbly on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences and history Japan pursued from the generation which experienced the war to those without direct knowledge.” Naruhito will have to work hard to develop the same rapport with his people that Akihito enjoyed, but his people ought also to embrace the continuing message of empathetic and solemn remembrance that has emanated from the Chrysanthemum Throne since Hirohito’s reign came crashing down.

As emperor, a figure revered by the very far-right groups that threaten to undermine Japanese pacifism and contrition, Naruhito will be uniquely suited to help lead Japan away from the dangerous path offered by the far right. It is what the Japanese must do to mold their national identity on a more compassionate understanding of the past, rather than a self-justifying revisionist one. A sincere acknowledgement such as that would help ease decades-old tensions in the Asia-Pacific and give Japan a brighter role in building the region’s future.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Aman Tiku

Aman is a fourth-year double majoring in history and political science. His senior thesis addresses the role of security interests in democratization during the American occupation of Japan. In the past, he has interned at the Food and Drug Administration, Calvert Impact Capital, and Morrison & Foerster LLP. In addition to serving as The Gate’s Opinion Editor, Aman writes about Asia-Pacific political developments. He studied abroad in Paris in 2017 and was a Data Research Assistant at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. In his spare time, Aman enjoys socializing with his college house, exercising, and following the NBA and the NFL.


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