With a newly crowned emperor, Japan has entered a new historical period. Hopes are high that it will mean peace and prosperity for the nation.
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There is an air of mystery each time a Japanese emperor takes the throne. First, there are the sacred treasures known as the Three Imperial Regalia: a sword representing valor, a mirror for wisdom and a jewel for benevolence. Only emperors and a few priests have seen these legendary items.
Emperor Naruhito received the sword and jewel, the mirror was safe at another site, at the ceremony when he formally acceded to the Chrysanthemum Throne at midnight after his father Akihito abdicated on May 1.
For Naruhito, the first modern emperor to have studied abroad and the first born after Japan’s defeat in World War II, another mystery is what type of ruler he will be.
Naruhito gave the first clues in his first public address: “When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed, I am filled with a sense of solemnity.”
While noting his father’s devotion to praying for peace, Naruhito said he will “reflect deeply” on the path trodden by Akihito and past emperors. He promised to abide by the constitution that stripped emperors of political power, and to fulfill his responsibility as a national symbol while “always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them.”
“I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world,” he said.
This brings up one more mystery: What impact will Naruhito’s reign have on Japan and the surrounding region?
Of course, the future is uncertain, but we can know what people hope will happen. Akihito’s abdication after reigning for 30 years starting January 8, 1989, means the start of a new era for the nation. Naruhito’s era is named Reiwa, which means “beautiful harmony.” While Japan officially has entered a new historical period, the new emperor is continuing the work of his father whose era was named Heisei, which means “peace everywhere.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulated Naruhito on his ascension, pledging to create a “bright future” during the new era that is peaceful and full of hope.
Naruhito also received congratulations from abroad. President Donald Trump’s message said America and Japan will renew the bonds of friendship in the new era. Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted by state media as saying China and Japan should work together to promote peace and development and bilateral ties.
New eras of any sort offer the opportunity to hit reset, to revise expectations, to try something new. In a time when China is exerting more and more regional power, North Korea has leapt headlong back into nuclear and missile testing, and Japan is battling a stagnant economy and population, something new is what is needed to truly achieve “beautiful harmony.”
And what is needed does not have to be a mystery.
Naruhito is considered a new breed of royal, his outlook forged by the tradition-defying choices of his parents. Emperor Emeritus Akihito devoted his three-decade career to making amends for a war fought in his father’s name while bringing the aloof monarchy closer to the people.
Naruhito, 59, is the nation’s 126th emperor, according to a palace count that historians say likely included mythical figures until around the 5th century.
Michiko, Naruhito’s mother, was born a commoner and was Catholic educated. With Akihito, she reached out to the people, especially those who faced disability, discrimination and natural disasters.
Akihito during his reign embraced an identity as peacemaker and often made reconciliatory missions and carefully scripted expressions of regret on the war. His immersion in that role leaves Naruhito largely free of the burden of the wartime legacy, allowing him to carve his own path.
Palace watchers say the new emperor might focus on global issues, including disaster prevention, water conservation and climate change, which could appeal to younger Japanese, while also emulating his father’s focus on peace.
“I hope the new emperor will be like the Heisei emperor [Akihito], who cherishes peace,” said Takayori Kobayakawa, a 71-year-old retiree from Shizuoka, central Japan.
Naruhito has also demonstrated that he is an independent thinker and is cosmopolitan, said Jeff Kingston, Asian studies director at Temple University’s Japan campus.
“I think that we are going to see an interesting emperor, and I have high hopes for him,” he said.
To understand how the hopes for Naruhito may play out, it helps to look back on his father’s reign. Akihito was just 11 when he heard his father Hirohito’s voice on the radio declaring Japan’s surrender in World War II. Though he would not become emperor himself for another 44 years, Akihito spent much of his time on reconciliatory missions that began with Japan’s return to the international community in the early 1950s.
Akihito is the first emperor in Japan’s modern history to see his era end without ever having a war.
“It gives me deep comfort that the Heisei era is coming to an end, free of war in Japan,” Akihito said in a December news conference, his voice trembling with emotion.
Throughout his reign, which began in January 1989 after his father’s death, Akihito has enjoyed widespread respect as a politically neutral figurehead, as defined in Japan’s U.S.-inspired postwar constitution that also outlaws war as a means to settle disputes. Yet in recent years many palace watchers have seen his frequent expressions of remorse for Japan’s wartime past as a subtle message to politicians and nationalists seeking to expand the country’s military role.
Marking his 30-year reign in February, Akihito thanked his people for their strong desire for peace, but called for more effort.
“Today, in this globalizing world, however, I believe that Japan needs to open up to the world further, establish its own place in that world with wisdom, and build relations with other countries with sincerity and good will,” he said in a speech.
For much of the first half of the 20th century, Japan’s ruling military regime invaded neighboring countries as part of its expansionist vision for an Asian empire. It used Akihito’s father—worshipped in Japan as a living god—to drum up public support for the campaign, which eventually led to Japan’s involvement in World War II.
With Japan’s surrender came many changes, including an end of the modern era deification of emperors.
As Japan sought to normalize its post-war relations, Akihito as a 19-year-old crown prince embarked on a six-month trip in 1953 to the U.S., Canada and 13 European nations. He attended Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in Britain on behalf of his father.
Only eight years after the end of World War II, Hirohito’s own visit to those countries was considered too inflammatory.
During the trip, Akihito learned how the war affected Japanese immigrants in Canada, where he heard firsthand accounts from Japanese-Canadians put into internment camps. He was not always warmly welcomed, and in Britain he faced some protests, but historians say his debut helped rebuild Japan’s foreign relations.
Akihito would visit 30 countries as crown prince and another 28 as emperor. He was almost always accompanied by his wife, Empress Michiko.
His travels as emperor started in Asia, a region his father never visited.
In 1992, a year after visiting Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, Akihito made a first imperial visit to China, an extremely sensitive destination because of Japan’s wartime aggression. At the October 23 state banquet in Beijing, Akihito offered what was considered the strongest expression of regret over the war, though he stopped short of apologizing.
His speech warmed the atmosphere during the rest of his trip, historians and former diplomats say. Days later in Shanghai, residents standing along the street waved at Akihito’s motorcade, and the smiling emperor waved back, his car slowing down at his request.
Nevertheless, to this day Japan’s relations with China remain frosty.
Akihito has met with at least nine U.S. presidents and hosted banquets for a number of them.
Akihito, who grew up as a teenager during U.S. occupation and had an American tutor, has expressed deep remorse for his country’s wartime role and sorrow over the loss of many lives on both sides of the war.
He has also thanked the U.S. for its post-war support despite that the two countries fought as enemies.
Akihito has visited some of the harshest World War II battlefields in the Pacific. He visited the U.S. territory of Saipan in 2005, the western Pacific nation of Palau in 2015 and the Philippines in 2016.
Squarely facing Japan’s wartime history, including visits to the World War II battlefields, showed Akihito wanted to put his father’s legacy in the past, said Makoto Inoue, a Nikkei senior writer specializing in the imperial family.
But others say Akihito’s royal diplomacy never went far enough.
His trips to pray for the war dead were largely limited to the Pacific islands Japan badly lost in the final stages of the war, and did not include places that suffered imperial aggression earlier on, such as northern China and South Korea, said Takeshi Hara, a professor at Meiji Gakuin University and an expert on Japan’s monarchy.
“I’m afraid his role may be overrated, and could mislead the public’s view of wartime history,” he said.
While some accomplishments were made, atoning for all of the hurt from such a traumatic war ended up being an impossible mission for Akihito. His son must now take up the mantle.
When unveiling the name of the new era, Prime Minister Abe said the two characters in Reiwa were taken from a poem about plum blossoms in the “Manyoshu,” a 7th century poetry collection, and mean that “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.” He said “Manyoshu” is Japan’s oldest collection of poetry written by both royals and ordinary people, and it was appropriate to choose the name from a book symbolizing Japan’s rich culture and tradition.
Mr. Abe said the government selected the name “with hopes of making Japan a nation where every person can achieve dreams, like the plum flowers that bloom beautifully after a severe winter to signal the start of spring.”
The first character of the era name, “rei,” also means “good” or “beautiful,” while the second, “wa,” could mean “peace,” “harmony” or “mild” as in the introduction to a Manyoshu section with poems about plum flowers. “It is now the good month in early spring, the air is fresh and wind is soft. The plums blossoms are like the white powder of a beauty before a mirror, the fragrance like that which follows the sachet of a noble lady,” it says, describing a scene at a party where people open their hearts.
While all have high hopes for Reiwa and Naruhito’s reign, the current geopolitical climate points to a tough road ahead.
This is the forever conundrum for world leaders. All say they want peace, prosperity—beautiful harmony—yet it always lies just out of reach. How to achieve it remains an utter mystery.
Of course, we cannot give in to defeat and think, “World peace has never been achieved, therefore it never will.” Such pessimism is unproductive and would hurtle the globe to even worse lows.
But take an honest look at history. Our approaches have not worked and are not currently working. What are we missing? How can we achieve what all profess to desire?
A Shinto prayer, Japan’s largest religion, adds to these questions: “Although the people living across the ocean surrounding us, I believe, are all our brothers and sisters, why are there constant troubles in this world?
“Why do winds and waves rise in the ocean surrounding us?
“I only earnestly wish that the wind will soon puff away all the clouds which are hanging over the tops of the mountains.”
What this text says poetically can be summarized as, “Why can’t we all get along? I hope some outside force will come and fix all our problems.”
Every religion of the world has a similar prayer—crying out to supreme beings or the universe for peace on Earth. Yet to no avail.
The sad fact is that religions of men are often the cause of conflict in the world.
This gets back to the new approach needed to achieve true and lasting peace. While it has remained a mystery throughout millennia—it does not have to remain one for you.
Religions for centuries have used the Bible as a justification for war. Its central message, however, is how world peace will finally come.
Realize that the Bible is a book of mysteries. Ones that few understand. Notice the God who inspired this text: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God…” (Deut. 29:29).
These secret things do not stay hidden to those who obey God. Read the rest of verse 29: “But those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
These mysteries do not remain mysteries! Colossians 1:26 speaks of “the mystery which has been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints”—to those who obey Him.
You now know what the answer is to the great mystery of the ages. But you can also know how. To learn more about God’s soon-coming Kingdom, read How World Peace Will Come!