Emperor Akihito
Former emperor Akihito. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The now-former Japanese emperor Akihito, 85, abdicated yesterday. This is the first time there has been an abdication for 200 years in Japan, the world’s oldest monarchy. Akihito’s son Naruhito, 59, ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne today as its 126th emperor.

Japan has all sorts of challenges and people are seeing the change of guard as an opportunity for, despite all its existing high-tech brilliance, further modernisation.

Who is Akihito?

Akihito ascended the throne in 1989 on the death of his father Hirohito, known as the Showa Emperor and the man whose reign included the years of World War II and who was subsequently stripped of most of his powers by the US after Japan lost the war.

The Americans imposed a new constitution on Japan, removing its defence force — in its place introducing a so-called self-defence force.

Akihito was the first Japanese emperor in over 2500 years to marry a commoner and his time on the throne was marked by the adoption of a new modern style of royalty where he and empress Michiko mingled among the people in the same way European royals do, for the first time.

“To the people who accepted and supported me as a symbol, I express my heartfelt thanks,” Akihito said at his abdication ceremony.

Who is Naruhito?

Like his father, Naruhito married a commoner. Empress Masako is also university educated and a former diplomat. She suffered from what the palace described as stress-related depression that kept her out of the public eye for a decade, and there is some doubt as to what role she will play as empress.

Naruhito is the first Japanese emperor to be educated overseas with his parents supporting his decision to attend Oxford where he wrote a thesis on medieval mercantile trade on the River Thames before returning to Japan to complete a doctorate.

The Royal Court, succession and gender

The Japanese Royal Court remains a powerful institution and many of the rules around the monarch and his family are arcane.

The new Empress Masako, for instance, is not permitted to witness her husband’s crowning. But, in a move that is bound to upset ultra traditionalists, the ceremony will be witnessed for the first time in history by a woman: one of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s cabinet, Rural Revitalisation Minister Satsuki Katayama.

The line of succession to the Japanese throne is now precariously thin, one of the reasons for this is because women are not permitted to rule the country. Indeed, female children of emperors leave the royal family and become commoners after marrying.

Naruhito and Masako’s only child is Aiko, Princess Toshi, 17, so succession passes officially to Naruhito’s brother Akishino, 53, and next in line is Akishino’s 12-year-old son Hisahito. So the pressure is upon him, already, to marry and produce at least one male heir.

There has been an official inquiry into the role of women in the royal family but the delicate topic of a female ruler has still not been broached.

Why should Australia care?

Japan is one of the most important countries in the world to Australia. It is Australia’s number two trade partner, a major strategic partner, part of the emerging Quad alliance with the US and India, and the fourth biggest foreign in investor in Australia with more than $310 billion — over three times the level of China.

The succession appears to be completely trouble free and it points to an increasingly modern Japan, and a stable and modern Japan has always been in Australia’s interests.

Japan has had a difficult few decades of relative economic stagnation, although it remains the world’s third-largest economy after the US and China. Just as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were seen to bring Japan into the world after the post-war years, next year’s Tokyo Olympics are being seen as an opportunity to refresh the country.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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