AKIHITO’S LAST BIRTHDAY BEFORE ABDICATION AN OCCASION TO FRESHLY RECOGNIZE JAPAN’S TRADITIONAL NATIONAL CHARACTER
Early this morning, December 23, I joined millions of people across Japan in hoisting the rising sun national flag to wish well to Emperor Akihito on his 85th birthday—his last before abdicating next April.
Our national flag, featuring a red sun set onto a white background, never ceases to impress me with its serene beauty and the absolute simplicity of its composition.
Thunderous waves of fluttering flags surged three times across the palace grounds as more than 80,000 well-wishing citizens in three successive groups were allowed on to the premises.
In the morning editions of the major dailies I read a moving birthday message Emperor Akihito had read during a palace news conference held two days before. His thoughtful words were filled with deep affection for the people of Japan and for his wife, Empress Michiko (84).
True to their words that they always wish to be close to the people, the imperial couple have consistently turned their eyes toward the weak and the unfortunate. The emperor took particular note of the difficult times the people of Okinawa have faced:
“Okinawa has experienced a long history of hardships, including what happened there during the war. I have visited the prefecture 11 times with the empress, starting with the visits that I made in my days as Crown Prince, and have studied the history and culture of Okinawa. We will continue to honor the sacrifices that the people of Okinawa have endured over the years. That commitment will remain unchanged in the future.”
As regards the visits they have made to some of the hardest-fought battlegrounds of “the last war,” the emperor had this to say: “I shall not forget the trips that the empress and I made to Saipan for the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, to Peleliu Island in Palau for the 70th anniversary, and to Caliraya in the Philippines the following year, to pay our respects to those who lost their lives in the war.”
As Katsumi Iwai, a journalist commissioned to cover the Imperial Household for the mass-circulation daily Asahi Shimbun specifically noted, Emperor Akihito is exceptional in that he is the only one out of the four successive emperors from Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) down who has never worn a military uniform or seen his country at war.
Would it be because of this background that Emperor Akihito constantly expresses his deep sympathy for the victims of major disasters? His strong desire for peace was clearly reflected in a reference to the end of his 30-year era: “It gives me deep comfort that the Heisei Era is coming to an end free of war in Japan.”
Sixty-Years Anniversary of Marriage for the Imperial Couple
The emperor also talked at some length about the sacrifices endured by people across Japan as a result of severe natural disasters over the past three decades, including the 2011 Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. His remarks prompted me to instantly recall the visits he and his wife made to the disaster-hit areas when he said: “The empress and I have also considered it an important duty of ours to care for those with disabilities and others faced with difficulties.”
Simultaneously, Emperor Akihito expressed his heart-felt gratitude to Empress Michiko for having “always been at my side,” understanding his thoughts and supporting him in his position and official duties. The imperial couple will be marking the 60th anniversary of their marriage next April. With the unique experience of having become the first commoner to marry into the imperial family in 1959, the image of Empress Michiko is reverently imprinted on the minds of many Japanese for her deep compassion for the people. The emperor remarked:
“Looking back, it was soon after I embarked on my life’s journey as an adult member of the Imperial Family that I met the empress. Feeling a bond of deep trust, I asked her to be my fellow traveler and have journeyed with her as my partner to this day.
“As I come to the end of my journey as emperor, I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart the many people who accepted and continued to support me as the symbol of the State. I am also truly grateful to the empress, who herself was once one of the people, but who chose to walk this path with me, and over sixty long years continued to serve with great devotion both the Imperial Family and the people of Japan.”
The deep gratitude for the empress the emperor expressed, his voice often trembling with emotion, precisely spoke of the preciousness of the long years they have spent together, supporting each other as fellow travelers on a long and often stormy journey. For people in Japan who have spent the last 70-odd postwar years under a constitution devoid of any reference to the importance of families– let alone such a clause that most other constitutions contain– how the emperor and the empress have lived serves as a superb example for all married couples in Japan to follow.
I am grateful to have been born in a country with an emperor who has such a benevolent heart, a country with an imperial couple who lead with such an exemplary attitude toward life, a country marked by seven decades of peace and stability following a devastating war.
The emperor concluded his remarks by expressing his earnest hopes for a stable new era:
“Finally, I will abdicate next spring and a new era will begin…The Crown Prince, who will be the emperor in the new era, and Prince Akishino, who will be supporting the new emperor, have each accumulated various experiences, and I think that, while carrying on the traditions of the Imperial Family, they will continue to walk their own paths, keeping pace with our ever-changing society.”
The year 2019, which will see the Crown Prince ascend to the throne on May 1, will be a hectic year for Japan with a host of activities scheduled, including the upper and lower house elections, the World Cup soccer tournament, and a consumption tax increase, in addition to a series of traditional ceremonies marking the era change. In the international community, meanwhile, the likes of Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Moon Jae-in will be engaged in cut-throat international battles.
In a special interview on the Internet “Genron TV” news show videoed for release on January 4, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defined as “speaking candidly and keeping promises” the crux of his posture in dealing with these tough negotiators. When no small number of nations view diplomacy as a political game dictated by rampant lies, what Abe advocates is the high road of Shinto ethics. Shinto ethics are imbued in the traditional character of Japan as a nation.
Shinto Values at Their Best
With an era change less than a half year away, I think it pertinent to freshly consider what our national character represents. The pillar of our national character is the Imperial Household, whose tradition traces back to the mythological age, overlapping with Shinto, Japan’s national religion. There are those who do not appreciate Shinto as an authentic religion because of the absence of a written script equaling the Buddhist Scripture or the Holy Bible. However, Professor Sukehiro Hirakawa, the nation’s leading comparative culture historian known for his encyclopedic knowledge, has this to say in What Is Shinto? co-authored with Ms. Yoko Makino (Kinsei-sha, Tokyo; 2018):
“The power of Shintoism lurks at the root of the fact that so-called Shintoistic sensibility is very much alive in the minds of most Japanese—whether or not Shinto is taught to them.”
Shinto values are deeply rooted in the sensibility, not reason, of the Japanese. These values are gentle and tolerant. Japan, which had for long worshipped Shinto gods, readily accepted Buddhism in the sixth century, although it represented the teachings of a pagan religion. Prof. Hirakawa points to Shinto’s outstanding difference with Christianity by comparing the tolerance it preaches in contrast to the first of Moses’ Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Shinto and monotheism are poles apart. That we have long held the tradition of cherishing each individual, from the days of the Nihon Shoki (the Chronicles of Japan; 720 AD) and the Kojiki (the Records of Ancient Matters; 711-712 AD) is also a special feature of our national character.
Emperor Akihito stated that he wants Crown Prince Naruhito and his younger brother Prince Akishino to carry on these values.
In an ever unstable international environment, Japan in 2019 will likely be called on to further strengthen its foundation in every respect. Otherwise, it may be thrown into situations where it will struggle desperately to survive. major changes in the international community.
The power necessary for Japan to survive these challenges and carry forward true to its principles will come from a realization of what culture, civilization, and tradition can be traced to our origins, i.e., a rediscovery of our very ethnic roots.
As the world undergoes a sea change, the role expected of the Imperial Household will be extremely important in a variety of ways. As dusk came on this last birthday of Emperor Akihito in the Heisei era, I took down the national flag in our front yard and folded it scrupulously with that thought in mind.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 834 in the January 3-10 combined issue of The Weekly Shincho)