Japan’s chance to modernise society

Japan has entered a new era with Crown Prince Naruhito succeeding his father Akihito as the country’s 126th emperor. This is a historic transition. This is the first time in over 200 years that a Japanese imperial transition has taken place as a result of abdication by the emperor, rather than his death. Emperor Akihito, who is now Emperor Emeritus Akihito, stepped down on account of his advanced age and failing health, paving the way for Naruhito’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Japan’s monarchy is the oldest in the world. It has undergone dramatic changes over the past century. In the wake of the monarchy’s controversial role in World War II, Japan’s post-war constitution changed the role of the monarchy from that of a ‘living god’ with political powers, including the right to declare war, to just a symbol of Japan. Emperor Akihito, who ascended the throne in 1989, was a different kind of emperor, one that Japan had never seen in the 2,680 years of imperial history. He took the monarchy to the people and humanized it. He visited sanatoriums for leprosy patients and tended to people hit by natural disasters. Few would have forgotten the moving photograph of Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, kneeling on the floor to comfort survivors of a volcanic eruption in Nagasaki Prefecture.

Emperor Naruhito's accession to the throne marks the start of the Reiwa era in Japan. The new era started amidst serious uncertainty over technological glitches similar to the Y2K problem. It has triggered a nation-wide discussion on whether it is finally time that Japan let go of its tradition of a new calendar marking the start of every new imperial era to shift to the Gregorian calendar like the rest of the world. This problem underscores the enormous difficulty that the Japanese people have with breaking with tradition. And herein lies the most important challenge that Emperor Naruhito faces: modernising not just Japan’s very traditional monarchy but its wider culture.

Gender relations in Japan are deeply rooted in traditional beliefs that a man’s role is that of a breadwinner while a woman’s role is to bear and rear children. Importantly, Japan has a males-only succession line, which means that only a male can ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. It also means that Naruhito’s daughter, Princess Aiko, cannot inherit the throne unless Japanese laws are amended. Will Naruhito precipitate a nation-wide discussion on the matter? This is not just about his daughter. He could use the question of succession to make gender relations in Japan more equal. He could also use his expertise in water management to carve for himself and Japan a leadership role in water conservation, a critical worldwide problem.

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