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Editorial: Japan should flexibly respond to changes of the times during Reiwa era

The new Reiwa era began on May 1 during the season of fresh green leaves as Crown Prince Naruhito ascended to the Imperial Throne following the abdication of his father Emperor Akihito.

The name "Reiwa" swept across Japan after the government announced the new era name in advance, on April 1. This was a rare phenomenon, as in modern Japan, a new era had always begun with the demise of an emperor.

Japanese people tend to place their hope in an era name consisting of two kanji Chinese characters, which was the case with the previous Heisei and Showa eras.

However, people are festive now not only because Japan was free of somberness generated by the demise of an emperor but also because people desire to turn over a new leaf in this new era.

The Heisei era that lasted for nearly 30 years and four months was a turbulent period with numerous challenges for Japan.

Japan's gross domestic product had accounted for 15% of the world economy in the early Heisei era that began in 1989, but the ratio has now declined to around 6%. Japan had been called the biggest winner in the Cold War but no longer has the remnant of its past glory.

International order drastically changed with the end of the Cold War. Terrorist attacks by radicals have killed massive numbers of people. China's expansion and military provocations by North Korea have destabilized regional situations. The Heisei era is a period when Japan continued to struggle to pursue an ideal security policy.

Serious natural disasters, including the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated western Japan including Kobe in January 1995 and the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, are still fresh in Japanese people's memories as bitter experiences.

That is probably why Japanese people now desire to get a fresh start. However, the flow of history has seamlessly continued from Heisei to Reiwa.

We need to have flexibility and patience with which we can adapt to drastic changes Japan and the rest of the world are expected to undergo.

The Meiji government that was launched following the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 19th century abolished the class system from feudal Japan and created "citizens" in order to establish a centralized government. The Imperial regime was recognized as the core of that new system.

However, the power of the legislative branch was so weak in the constitutional monarchy system in Japan that the country allowed the military to move recklessly and dragged Japan into war, leading the country to a catastrophic defeat.

The postwar Constitution defines the emperor as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. However, people tended to regard Emperor Showa, who acceded to the throne under the Meiji Constitution, as the head of state. In that sense, it was during the Heisei era that the definition of the emperor as the symbol of the state became closely linked to constitutionalism in both name and substance.

Concerns have been voiced over a division of society as a counterreaction to rapid globalization. Some have pointed out that Japan has relatively maintained stability because of a bond between people through the system of the emperor as the symbol.

A state is a community of people who live within its territory. It is certain that people's respect for the Imperial Family serves as power to strengthen unity among members of Japanese society.

However, Japan is entering into an age when people living in this country are not necessarily Japanese nationals. Approximately 2.73 million foreigners are living in Japan, already accounting for 2% of the country's population. The new system to accept more foreign workers was introduced in April. It is increasingly necessary for Japanese people to coexist in harmony with neighbors who have different customs and speak different languages.

The Foreign Ministry has explained to the governments of other countries that the new era name Reiwa means "beautiful harmony." The ministry provided such an explanation because at least one foreign news organization translated "rei" as "order."

If the spirit behind Reiwa is harmony, Japan must respect diversity so that people can accept others with different personalities rather than pursuing a homogeneous community. Japan should also have such flexibility as it is rapidly globalizing.

University of Tokyo professor emeritus Yasuaki Onuma, who died last fall, called in his book, "International Law," for a relaxation of requirements for foreigners to obtain Japanese nationality with the aim of helping integrate ethnic minorities into society. Since ethnic diversity will inevitably progress, Japan should develop legislation that can best conform with its society to respond to the trends while learning lessons from other countries' experiences.

The government chose to transform its immigration control policy against the backdrop of drastic changes in Japan's demographic structure.

Japan's population is estimated to decrease by 20 million over the next three decades to around 100 million. On the other hand, the number of elderly people will peak in the 2040s as all children of baby-boomers will be aged at least 65.

A declining and aging population directly leads to a shortage in financial resources for social security expenditure and the worsening of fiscal health. Japan cannot maintain social stability without patiently facing these problems. This is how we should fulfill our responsibility to those born in the Reiwa era.

The Constitution stipulates that the emperor's position derives from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power. A video message in which then Emperor Akihito suggested his apparent desire to abdicate three years ago reminded us of the profoundness of this constitutional principle.

Members of the public may have taken this principle for granted. The emperor is the symbol of the unity of the people but is not the subject of such unity. It is each and every member of the public that should consider the ideal way Japan should be and work to achieve harmony in society.

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