Japanese Emperor Akihito’s scheduled step-down marks end of an era

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/7 22:53:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

A 60th diamond wedding anniversary is certainly a memorable and once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Maybe because of this historical coincidence, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko plan to step down from the throne in April 2019, which will fall just after their diamond-wedding anniversary. Of course, their marriage will continue, but the 31-year Heisei period will come to an end.

According to an NHK report, on December 1, a meeting of the Japanese Imperial Household Council, which was chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and included parliamentary leaders, supreme court judges and imperial family members, decided the date of Emperor Akihito's abdication to be on April 30 2019, and announced that Crown Prince Naruhito will accede to the throne the following day. In a press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that a new era would not be named until next year, to avoid unnecessary hype.

Regarding the timing of the emperor's abdication, the Japanese government came up with several dates, including December 31, 2018. In the end they settled with April 30, 2019, for the purpose of ensuring that the date will be free from other national events and be able to garner the attention it deserves.

This particularly concerns the local political elections that are held every four years - which are scheduled to take place during March and April 2019. Also, in mid-late June, there will be the House of Councillors election. Coincidentally, the year 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of Emperor Showa Hirohito's death - with April 29 his birthday. Thus during the period of April 29 to May 1, a very royal atmosphere will be stirred up in the nation.

In moving from the Showa period to the Heisei period post-WWII, you could say that Japan went from being like a brave young man full of energy to a playboy without ambitions. Much of Japan's domestic and foreign diplomacy was founded in the Showa era and, at the end of the 1950s it entered into a rapid period of economic development, and became one of the first non-Western developed countries. The constitution of Japan that was enacted in 1947 not only transformed the country into a democracy, but also laid the foundations for its economic development to come.

In 1952, Japan joined the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which symbolized its entering of the postwar international financial system. In 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan was founded and has almost continuously been in power ever since. With Japan joining the UN in 1956, it represented the country's beginnings in integrating into the international arena. The normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea and between Japan and China in 1965 and 1972 respectively turned a new page for relations between Japan and the countries it had previously invaded.

However when Japan entered into the Heisei era following Emperor Showa Hirohito's death in 1989, it went into a period of overall decline. In the early 1990s, the Japanese asset price bubble's burst left Japan in the Lost Decade of economic stagnation. When Japanese GDP growth rate was negative, its status as the world's second-largest economy that it had maintained for decades was replaced by China in 2010, and the economic disparity between them expanded.

During this period of economic decline, Heisei era politics also showed signs of instability. On the one hand, the long-standing LDP faced difficulties in maintaining its leadership. The LDP had to unite with Komeito to become the ruling party. It even lost power in 1993 and 2009, making people doubt this decades-long single-party dominance.

On the other hand, there were so many prime ministers that came to power during the Heisei era, especially from 2006 to 2012, which saw six prime ministers serve in just six years. This led to not only unstable politics, but also difficulties in policy implementation.

At the social level, with the first Baby Boom Generation (those born in the three-year span from 1947 to 1949 who contributed to economic development in the Showa era) retiring and an ageing and shrinking population, people have begun to speculate whether Japan will ever be able to rise up to its past glories again. Hence, although Japan in the Heisei era still enjoys wealth and honor, such as many Japanese scientists receiving Nobel prizes in recent years, it is just an extension of the Showa era, not directly from the fruits of the Heisei era.

Emperor Akihito's abdication means, literally, the end of an era, leaving Japanese not only memories, but also a sense of loss.

But the legacy will live on. Emperor Akihito's rethinking of WWII and contributions made to peace and stability will become national memories held by the people.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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