The May-June issue of Sapio features the final installment in a long-running series of dialogs about the "History of the Heisei Era" between Keio University professor Morihide Katayama and former diplomat Masaru Sato. Its title: "Do Japanese Need an Emperor?"
The question here is rhetorical and obviously not meant to be taken seriously as a debating point at this particular point in time. The government has already decided that Emperor Akihito's reign will end with his abdication in April 2019, with his successor, the crown prince, initiating the new era from May 1. The next era name (gengo in Japanese) is scheduled to be announced in February of next year.
In the immediate postwar period, the emperor system came close to being abolished completely. After China's Xinhai Revolution in 1911, Emperor Puyi eventually assumed the status of an ordinary citizen. But is such a thing even thinkable in Japan?
"There can be no mistaking that people's view of the Emperor has undergone change," Sato remarks. "I wonder if one reason for this is because they don't have a strong awareness of the emperor -- although that doesn't necessarily mean their sentiments have become diluted."
"In other words," Katayama adds, "the emperor's presence has permeated to the extent that while people may accept it in matter-of-fact terms, whether they're for or against the institution, there's no real passion. So being the case, perhaps people lack the energy to debate the subject."
Under the postwar Constitution the status of the Showa Emperor was reduced from "living god" to that of a symbolic figurehead. But with the current emperor even that has become diluted, in part by the liberal tutelage he underwent in his youth from American Quaker Elizabeth Vining and British-educated Keio University professor Shinzo Koizumi.
Sato then makes an interesting observation: "As the present emperor is his own person, there are no moves that might link any opposition to the imperial system and opposition to the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In other words, nobody's saying that the present emperor system can be associated with the prewar formula of Japanese imperialism. The current phenomena can be said to express the image of the Heisei Era."
This, Katayama remarks, may also reflects that more Japanese ascribe to liberal views as embodied in pacifism, postwar democracy and the Constitution. "For more people, the presence of the current emperor ties in with views in opposition to the policies of the Abe government."
Katayama and Sato then make comparisons on the theological background, with the god-king (of Japan) as based upon ancient creation myths as interpreted by early histories such as the 8th century works Kojiki ("Records of Ancient Matters") and Nihon Shoki ("The Chronicles of Japan"). Even before the Meiji Period and Japan's opening to the West, however, views of Confucian and Shinto scholars appear to have been influenced by the Holy Trinity and other Christian dogma, and these in turn were eventually adopted to ascribe "charisma" to rites and ceremonies performed by the emperor, particularly from the early Showa Era in the 1920s. That ended on January 1, 1946 with Hirohito's rescript known as the "Declaration of Humanity" -- or denial of divinity, if you prefer -- imposed on him by the victorious allies.
Sato believes that since certain segments of Japanese society, including the Ainu and Okinawan minorities and certain Buddhist groups, openly reject myths related to the emperor system, its status will be affected to some degree in the future.
"Now we're approaching the post-Heisei Era," Katayama sums up. "I can envisage one argument surfacing, which will be raising the question of whether Japan should become a republic. As for Heisei, it's likely to be remembered as an era that embodied the thoughts and actions of Emperor Akihito as its characteristic feature. With his abdication, then, I suppose the very nature of emperor itself will change."© Japan Today