At the end of April, the curtain will fall on the Heisei era, and this year a new emperor will ascend to the throne.
An emperor who stands with the people of Japan -- the emperor as a symbol has been established by Emperor Akihito based on the Imperial Household's long history. The Imperial transition from Emperor Akihito to Crown Prince Naruhito will be an opportunity for the citizens of Japan, with whom sovereign power lies according to the Constitution, to consider the place of the Imperial system once more.
The Constitution stipulates that the Emperor is "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People," but this is an abstract concept that lacks a clear definition. Empress Michiko told a press conference commemorating the 20th anniversary of Emperor Akihito's enthronement, "The meaning of 'symbol' is still difficult to describe in words." Her remark bears even more significance now.
The journey taken by His Majesty in search of his meaning as a symbol of the state has been affected by the changing times. Following the rapid economic growth during the Showa era under his father's reign, the Heisei era saw many natural disasters -- including two major earthquakes -- strike the nation. Emperor Akihito visited affected areas and consoled the victims, often on his knees, leaving an impression on the citizens of Japan by closing the distance between himself and those suffering. In an era of confusion, public interest in the Imperial Household has surged.
--- Harmony with postwar democratic institutions
The Emperor's televised remarks have also promoted his role as a symbol. He established a style of speaking directly to the public on TV, including his video message following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and has become closer to the people of Japan as a result.
After the end of World War II, many questioned if democracy and the Imperial system could coexist. His Majesty, however, has respected the Constitution, which leaves sovereignty in the hands of the people, and has made efforts to prevent dark prewar memories from affecting the relationship between the Emperor and the public. The Heisei era can be described as a time when democracy and the Imperial system achieved a harmonious relationship.
According to a public opinion survey by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, which has been carried out every five years since 1973, positive perception of the Emperor, such as a favorable impression or feelings of respect, reached a record high of some 70 percent of respondents in 2013.
An "emperor in action," is a form of symbolism that Emperor Akihito has discovered over the course of his time on the throne. At a press conference on the occasion of his birthday in December last year, His Majesty expressed his gratitude to "the many people who accepted and continued to support me as the symbol of the State," emphasizing that he was thankful "from the bottom of (his) heart."
The remark must have come from his poignant, unparalleled recognition that the contemporary Imperial system cannot stand without the support of the people. At the same time, an active emperor cannot continue to fulfill his role when he becomes old and physically weak. His Majesty's idea for the emperor's symbolic presence is deeply connected to his desire to retire from his duties.
Crown Prince Naruhito told a press conference ahead of his birthday in February 2018 that he will follow the footsteps of his parents, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who have "walked alongside the people." He also indicated his understanding that the role of the Imperial Household is to act "in response to changes in society."
What, then, will the symbol of State and of the unity of the people be from now on?
As Prince Akishino, the younger son of Emperor Akihito, questioned the use of funds from state coffers to pay for "Daijosai," an Imperial event with significant religious meaning, just last year, there is also a possibility that the way the Imperial Household functions will change.
--- Discussions needed for Imperial succession
As the Imperial Household grows more transparent to the public, weekly tabloid magazines have begun running articles about scandals linked to the family. How should we as a society maintain tradition while also accommodating contemporary public perceptions? The way to handle this issue may mean destabilizing the Imperial system itself.
One major question we must answer is whether or not we should accept the abdication of the emperor in the future. We cannot postpone discussion of Imperial succession as the number of candidates has continued to dwindle. After His Majesty retires, the only young member of the Imperial Household who can succeed the Imperial Throne is Prince Hisahito, 12, the son of Prince Akishino. For a stable line of succession, the government should start deliberations as early as possible. This includes the possibility of a female emperor or an emperor with maternal connections to the Imperial line.
Looking to international society, divisions have widened between the haves and the have-nots, as well as between citizens and immigrants, eroding unity as nations, as in such cases as the United States.
It appears as though the Emperor as the symbol of the unity of the people will come to shoulder the role of maintaining cooperation in society. This role is markedly different from that defined for the prewar nation led by a monarchy with the emperor at its head.
A record number of visitors exceeding 150,000 crowded the Imperial Palace grounds to listen to Emperor Akihito's very last New Year's address. The large turnout can be said to be an expression of gratitude by the people to an emperor who poured his heart and soul into fulfilling his role as a symbol of the state.
Looking back, one has to wonder if too much has been placed in the hands of the Emperor in exploring what his role as a symbol should be. The image of the emperor as a symbol for the new era should be built based on the will of the public, through cooperation between the new emperor and the Japanese people.