TOKYO -- There's an anecdote from when then Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, was ill. An elderly person had come to Tokyo to sign a well-wishing book at the Imperial Palace for the stricken Emperor. They asked for directions to the kyujo -- which is an old term for "palace" and a homonym of "baseball field" -- and was directed to Tokyo Dome stadium.
Strangely enough, that story has stuck with me. It denoted a time when those who were familiar with the prewar and wartime name for the Imperial Palace were being replaced by a generation of people who did not.
It was 30 years ago at such a turning point in Japanese society that Emperor Akihito acceded to the throne. His constant exploration of what it means to be "the symbol of the state" as stipulated abstractly by the Japanese Constitution drew Japanese people even from the postwar generation to him.
The origins of his pursuit for an existence as a symbolic emperor can perhaps be traced back to his marriage as then crown prince to the now Empress Michiko, who came from a commoner background, and their efforts to keep their family as close to "normal" as they could.
As children, both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko evacuated from Tokyo to rural areas during World War II, and witnessed with their own eyes the destruction wrought by war. Such experiences likely comprise the seeds of their pacifism today. In the post-World War II era, ideas attempting to transcend existing values were born among younger generations around the world.
The romantic story of the encounter of then Crown Prince Akihito and commoner Michiko meeting on a tennis court in the resort town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture in central Japan ending in marriage hinted at a new age. It broke with old traditions, inviting strong objections from the old guard, but much of the public was supportive -- many fanatically so.
On the day of their wedding, 530,000 people filled the roads to watch the parade. After the newlyweds finished a series of ceremonies for the day and finally reached their transitional home, the Tokyo edition of the Mainichi Shimbun reported on the front page the couple's "in-home smiles." There must have been a celebratory atmosphere that allowed even the press to forgo past, more somber traditions.
Not everything was easygoing for the Imperial Couple, however. But their approach of "being with the people" never wavered.
Their Majesties prayed for peace and expressed compassion and condolences for the victims of war both at home and abroad. They got on their knees to talk with disaster victims in evacuation centers, and empathized with them. Even for events that took place on a regular basis, the Emperor re-read and revised his notes for speeches repeatedly. His proactive stance was consistent throughout his reign.
Japan is now up against never-before-seen challenges such as the declining birthrate, aging population and depopulation. We also face the threats of global environmental issues, terrorism, and a highly networked information society. The Heisei era leaves many problems unsolved, but it also helped the blossoming of new values, such as diversity and coexistence.
On her 60th birthday in 1994, Empress Michiko released the following statement: "Every era has its own wind, and the new wind of any era could not have been born without the era that came before it."
Showa, Heisei, and tomorrow, Reiwa. The winds that have been passed down will blow tomorrow.
(Japanese original by Kenji Tamaki, Visiting Senior Writer)