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Editorial: With end of Heisei near, how will Japan define this era, and the one to come?

It is 1989. On April 1, the Japanese government implements the country's first consumption tax. On June 24, cultural icon Hibari Misora passes away. Democratic revolutions sweep Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall crumbles on Nov. 9. On Dec. 29, the Nikkei Stock Average hits an all-time high.

All of these events symbolize, in one way or another, the start of a new era, either in Japan or globally. However, there was also one literally era-changing event that year: the demise of Emperor Hirohito on Jan. 7. It was the end of the long and undeniably history-altering Showa era, and ushered in the era in which we now live: Heisei.

Now, Emperor Akihito is set to abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne on April 30, 2019. After 30-plus years, the curtain will fall on the Heisei era, too. So what kind of era has it been? 2018, the last full year of Heisei, is a time to consider this question.

In March 1989, a month after the funeral of Emperor Showa -- as Emperor Hirohito is known posthumously -- the Mainichi Shimbun conducted a survey of the public's opinion of the new era name. Some 75 percent of respondents called the "Heisei" name "bright" and "easy to understand."

The attitude contrasted somewhat with the image of Showa, which began in December 1926. While the postwar part of that era was defined by Japan's near miraculous recovery and decades of steep economic growth, the traumas inflicted by defeat in World War II cast a persistent shadow over the period.

The positive image attached to the Heisei name was likely partly grounded in the Japanese people's hope that the dawn of that new era would be a kind of reset for the country. However, things did not proceed as many expected.

In his 1979 bestseller "Japan as Number One," U.S. social scientist Ezra Vogel praised Japanese-style management, including lifetime employment and seniority based on length of service. Japan's model for success, however, began to look quite creaky in the wake of the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, and the country's self-confidence bled away in the ensuing "lost decades" -- some 20 years of economic stagnation. Now, Japan is faced with a swiftly aging population and a low birthrate. Compensating for the extreme stresses the rising tide of grey is exerting on the country's social security and healthcare system has thus far proven too great a task, even with new revenues from consumption tax hikes.

Meanwhile, globalization has swept the world in the post-cold war era, including Japan. To survive in this environment of capital and labor mobility, Japanese companies have come to depend ever more on cheaper non-permanent employees, expanding wealth inequality and fragmenting the "100-million-member middle class" that was one of the hallmarks of the Showa era.

Japan's quick ascent to prosperous economic powerhouse in the decades after WWII gave the country a sense of unity, expressed in part in the near-universal love for performer Hibari Misora. It seems very unlikely that a consensus superstar like Misora could emerge today.

Heisei was also marked by political instability. Japanese cabinets were notoriously short-lived, and 17 men have occupied the prime minister's office from Noboru Takeshita who was in office when the Heisei era started to the second incarnation of the Shinzo Abe administration currently in power. While that span has seen long runs by Junichiro Koizumi (April 2001-September 2006) and Abe (December 2012 to the present), several prime ministers including Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso and Yukio Hatoyama lasted less than a year in the post. These mayfly administrations, too briefly in office to implement any meaningful polices to address Japan's big problems, simply gobbled up valuable time.

In 2005, "ALWAYS: Sunset on Third Street" became a smash hit at the Japanese box office. The film, which takes place in Tokyo in 1958, sparked a wave of sweet nostalgia for "old-time Showa" Japan -- a reaction that must be seen in the context of the country's recent condition. Shinzo Abe also couched his return to Japan's premiership in the longing for the "better" times of yesteryear, with his campaign poster slogan, "Nihon o torimodosu," roughly translatable as "restore Japan." One could see all this as the flipside of the country's loss of self-confidence after the bubble years.

Meanwhile, Emperor Akihito worked to confront the dark tumult of the Showa years. After his ascension to the throne, he expressed this desire through frequent visits to memorials and graves for people who lost their lives in World War II, in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa, and also beyond Japan's shores.

Emperor Akihito has always respected Japan's postwar Constitution, and sought to be a new kind of symbol for the Japanese people. He has also apparently expressed his wishes that both the Imperial tomb for his remains and his funeral be scaled down. He has also simplified the security arrangements for his outings. One could call these unprecedented moves the "Heisei way."

What the Emperor has sought to do more than anything is to be one with his people, especially in times of disaster, when he has always prioritized going to the disaster area to be close to the victims. It was natural for him to ponder abdication when it became clear his age would prevent him from sufficiently carrying out these duties.

However, a clash of opinion soon erupted between the reactionary Abe administration and the Imperial Household Agency over the abdication. We wonder if this discord was caused in part by differing views on how to face the history of the Showa era.

For the Japanese people, Heisei has meant surpassing the values of the Showa era and searching for new social ideals.

After the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe and surrounding areas in 1995, that year was called "year one of the volunteer era," as people from across the country rushed to the disaster zone to help. Similar volunteerism and an outpouring of aid was seen in the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Furthermore, there are increasing numbers of people working for NPOs, which are now tackling social problems once the exclusive province of government organizations.

Meanwhile, it has become natural for men to help raise children, as women continue to expand their social, political and economic presence. We are also seeing a related re-evaluation of the "economic animal" model of work, with its presumption of long overtime hours and little to no consideration of work-life balance.

It is still hard to define the Heisei era. However, by looking at the flow of events from Showa into Heisei, perhaps we can see hints of what is to come.

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