Tokyo Report

The Heisei Paradox: Emperor Akihito and Japan’s Nationalist Regression

The paradox of a pacifist emperor amid rising nationalism politically is likely to continue in the Reiwa era.

By Edward Danks for
The Heisei Paradox: Emperor Akihito and Japan’s Nationalist Regression
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ State Department photo by William Ng

It is interesting to ponder how Japan’s Heisei era will be perceived in the future. Throughout the 30-year reign of Emperor Akihito (1989-2019), Japan has endured a tumultuous period of economic, political, and social upheaval. Despite this however, Japan still enjoys among the lowest unemployment rates globally, has the world’s longest life-expectancy, and maintains its reputation as a champion of the liberal international order. In the immediate wake of Emperor Akihito’s landmark abdication, we are provided with a perfect opportunity to reflect upon the past 30 years of Japan’s history, and contemplate the legacy of this turbulent era and a remarkable emperor.

Soon after Emperor Akihito’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne, Japan found itself in a state of flux. After years of seemingly miraculous economic growth and the emergence of prophetical theories hinting at Japan’s future role as the world’s economic and industrial hegemon, 1989 represented a key turning point in Japan’s post-war history. Not only did the culmination of the Cold War spell the end of the bipolar global environment under which Japan had blossomed, but the bursting of Japan’s asset bubble in 1991 led to an extended period of economic stagnation. Throughout what came to be known as the “lost decade,” Japan’s previously strong economy floundered, and the norms and values that formed the basis of Japan’s post-war national identity were drawn into question.

While Japan’s post-war identity has always been a complex and contentious subject, the economic boom of the mid-20th century provided a welcome distraction from this uncomfortable national debate. The economic malaise of the lost decade – 1991-2000 – however, brought with it an opportunity for national self-reflection, and a key question that emerged during this critically introspective period concerned the naturality of Japan’s liberal and pacifist identity.

Following U.S. occupation, a constitution and a national identity were established in Japan with pacifism and liberalism at their core. This stood in stark contrast to the ultranationalism that drove the Japanese war-effort, and for some Japanese politicians — including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — this was seen as the result of unnatural foreign intervention. As Japan’s economy faltered and its significance on the global stage waned, these very politicians began to find their voices.

Since 1989, the Japanese Diet’s top office has witnessed a revolving door of prime ministers, with 16 coming and going over a 30-year period. While this is demonstrative of Japan’s Heisei “crisis,” what is even more telling is that the two most electorally successful politicians during this period have been self-proclaimed nationalists. Both Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe come from well-established political dynasties, both have a distinctly revisionist outlook, and both reject what they perceive to be Japan’s masochistic post-war identity and restrictive constitution.

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Although the political longevity of Koizumi and Abe also stems from their charisma and hard-headed resilience, respectively, they both encapsulate a new, more assertive, and more nationalist strain of Japanese leadership. Through controversial trips to Yasukini Shrine (which honors Japan’s war dead, including numerous Class A war criminals), attempts to revise Article 9 (the “peace clause” of the constitution), and affiliation with ultranationalist groups that advocate the use of revisionary history textbooks that paint over Japan’s war-time aggression, these two leaders epitomize Japan’s elite-driven nationalist regression.

Following the death of Emperor Hirohito in January 1989 and the ascension of his son to the throne, the Japanese public suddenly felt the freedom to discuss Japan’s militaristic past and the war-time culpability of the emperor with renewed candor. For some, this new beginning represented an opportunity for reconciliation with neighbors and a springboard from which to develop stronger relations in the region. For various influential figures within the Liberal Democratic Party of Koizumi and Abe, however, Hirohito’s death provided a chance to revive debates around perceived constraints on Japanese sovereignty, and to establish a renewed, proud, and distinctly nationalist identity. History has shown that within Japanese politics, the nationalists have won this debate.

Despite this clear political victory, over the past 30 years, one very public and revered figure has been a thorn in the side for those driving Japan’s nationalist, revisionist reorientation. The great irony of this situation is that one of the most high-profile and ardent advocates of Japanese pacifism and liberalism is a man who (at least in title) best embodies the nostalgic and ultranationalist Japanese identity revered by Koizumi and Abe: Emperor Akihito is the Heisei paradox personified.

In the wake of Emperor Akihito’s abdication, tributes have flooded in from all corners of the world. Reflecting upon the numerous articles and op-eds written about this erstwhile quasi-deity, one commonality is clearly prevalent — Emperor Akihito was a manifestation of liberal, internationalist, and pacifist Japan.

While the role of the Emperor in modern Japan is officially ceremonial, throughout his reign, Akihito acted as a check on the government, tempering not their policy decisions, but the power of their rhetoric. Against a political backdrop of prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine and worsening relations with China and South Korea, Akihito’s conciliatory tone proved a settling influence. The subtle and considered content of many of his speeches demonstrated to the Japanese people and the international community that, contrary to the rhetoric coming out of the prime minister’s office, Japan can still be considered a bastion of international pacifism. Throughout his words and actions, Akihito emerged as both a lodestar for Japanese liberals and a “symbol of reproach to the nation’s conservative elite.”

As Japan makes the transition into the Reiwa era, people will inevitably question whether this royal succession will spell as significant a change in Japanese society as the previous one. With Emperor Naruhito suggested to mirror his father’s commitment to liberalism and pacifism and the remarkable political durability of Shinzo Abe, however, the Heisei paradox appears likely to continue. In the dawn of the new Reiwa era, it remains to be seen whether the “beautiful harmony” promised can be realized against a backdrop of internal political paradox. One thing that appears certain is that the new emperor has his work cut out to maintain either beauty or harmony in Japan while its elite, political class seem determined to pursue an ugly nationalist agenda at the expense of regional stability.

Edward Danks is a Research Coordinator at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS). He had published articles in The Diplomat, ISPI. and EURACTIV.