Japan: From the Heisei Period to the Reiwa Reign
Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. (Photo: Reuters)
By Tai Wei Lim

Japan: From the Heisei Period to the Reiwa Reign

May. 30, 2019  |     |  0 comments

The new Japanese Emperor Naruhito has been enthroned at the start of a new era known as the Reiwa (“Command Peace”) reign. Due to his failing health and old age, Emperor Akihito decided to step down and retire in favor of his son Crown Prince Naruhito. It was an unusual event as the last time a retirement happened in the Japanese Emperor system was about 200 years ago.


Emperor Akihito has been a well-loved sovereign who represented peace, pacifism and closeness to the Japanese people. There are expectations from the Japanese people that Emperor Naruhito will continue that line of popular monarchy, particularly in turbulent times brought about by various global forces of change. In a sea of geopolitical changes, the monarchy is a constant feature, providing continuity and comfort to the Japanese people.  


The Japanese Emperor’s position brings important symbolic significance. “Heisei” literally means “Establish Peace”. Emperor Akihito was a post-war monarch who understood the value of peace and was aligned with a Pacifist mainstream society. He witnessed war as a child and lived through it to be in a period of peace, stability and prosperity. He oversaw the transformation of postwar Japan to fast growth and eventually the world’s third largest economy. Akihito was tutored by a pacifist Quaker tutor from the US. Quakers are conscientious war objectors and the young Emperor was inculcated with the value of peace.


Under the reign of Emperor Akihito, Japan developed in peace under the US nuclear strategic umbrella and maintained a defensive force. It was only in recent times that the defense agency became a full-fledged ministry but the Japanese military still called itself a “Self-Defense Force” (SDF) to reflect its meticulous care and concern in enhancing offensive capabilities. Since 1945, Japan has cultivated the image of a moral, reliable, trustworthy and peace-loving nation and has discouraged nuclear weapons development. As the only country to have suffered atomic bombing in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan has worked hard to prevent another atomic or nuclear holocaust and has practiced maximum self-restraint from developing a nuclear weaponization program despite having the capabilities to do so.


Japan in the Heisei period had only used its armed forces for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKOs). Its UN PKOs was only authorized under pressure from the US, its closest ally, after the first Gulf War. US and allied countries hoped that Japan would step up to the global security cause and do more for peacekeeping efforts. Japan also played a major role in the aftermath and ceasing of the Cambodian civil war. Today, these countries enjoy peace and economic development. Even in such missions of peacekeeping, Japanese armed forces desisted from using force and only used it for defensive purposes when under attack. In such capacities, the Japanese armed forces have served international goals of peace and stability.


Japan has also practiced patient diplomacy and restraint, even in the most challenging of times. When North Korean missiles flew over Japan’s Hokkaido airspace, the Japanese practiced maximum self-restraint in not shooting them or intercepting these missiles with anti-ballistic missile systems, even though it had the capabilities to do so. So, peace and restraint also characterized the Heisei era. The missile tests only stopped after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Tokyo was also supportive of the two Trump-Kim summits (Singapore and Hanoi) for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo also participated in the six-party talks efforts brokered and advocated by Beijing in the past.


Emperor Akihito played an important ceremonial role in foreign diplomacy. He met with a few US Presidents, including President Bill Clinton and President Barrack Obama. He also met with then Chinese President Jiang Zemin in the 1990s in the spirit of rapprochement and friendship. The two countries increased contact and exchanges. Despite cyclical downturns in Sino-Japanese relations, there was always restraints and upturns, including the current state of warmer relations between the two countries under the Shinzo Abe administration and Xi Jinping’s core leadership.

The Heisei period was a fruitful period of peace-seeking efforts and regional stability-enhancing initiatives. Many people hope that there will be continuity in the Reiwa reign.

The emperor also saw his people through difficult times of natural disasters. Japan suffered two major earthquakes during the Heisei period, First, the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe which devastated a major metropolitan area. The earthquake recovery period also showed the immense resistance of the Japanese people, because even the Yakuza mafia volunteered to help with earthquake relief. The second major earthquake was the 311 Great East Japan Earthquake which devastated Japan’s northeast region and claimed 20,000 lives. During this time, Emperor Akihito was a beacon of comfort for the Japanese people, as was Empress Michiko.


The Great East Japan Earthquake also witnessed Japan’s friends turning up to help the country. The US launched Operation Tomodachi (Operation Friendship) and helped its closest ally in many ways, including launching drones over the exploded nuclear reactor. The disaster pulled Japan and the US even closer together. China and Hong Kong contributed to the relief and fund-raising efforts through both governmental and non-government means and brought normality to the lives of survivors of the disaster. It was a period of difficulties that also saw the emergence of true friendships. Japan also bonded with other well-wishing countries.


In the Heisei period, Emperor Akihito and Japan played many important roles in the regional economy. Both Japan and China were seen as pillars of stability during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis when the East Asian region was plunged into economic difficulties. Thailand saw its currency plummet; the crisis led to the downfall of the decades-old Suharto regime in Indonesia; and South Korean housewives donated their gold jewelry to save their country from debts. China promised to hold its currency stable and not devalue it under Premier Zhu Rongji’s strong leadership while Tokyo continued to provide aid, loans, investments and jobs while keeping the Japanese economy going as an engine of economic growth and stability in the region.


Japan also supported the Beijing-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership while Beijing sent out feelers to indicate it was studying the possibility of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership. Tokyo also sent a representative (the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary general) to consider the possibility of participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative launched by Beijing. Tokyo is keen to see more transparency in AIIB and is willing to work with Beijing through the vehicle of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Beijing is also keen to learn from the experiences of Tokyo in the ADB. In many ways, both countries are supporters of free trade. Tokyo has always worked closely with the US and other East Asian regional institutions like ASEAN Plus Three and the China-Japan-Korea trilateral summit (through activities like currency swaps). 


From the above, the Heisei period was a fruitful period of peace-seeking efforts and regional stability-enhancing initiatives. Many people hope that there will be continuity in the Reiwa reign. After all, both Emperor Naruhito and his father led humble lives like ordinary people before ascending the throne. Emperor Akihito studied fish species, performed musically on stringed instruments and married a commoner, Empress Michiko. Similarly, Emperor Naruhito wrote a thesis on medieval water systems in England, performed on the violin and also married a commoner, Empress Masako. Emperor Naruhito even washed his own laundry while studying in Australia! He is a baseball fan and has taken selfies during foreign trips as the Crown Prince.


A people’s emperor, Emperor Naruhito can be expected to provide the same level of spiritual support for his people during times of natural disaster. He is also likely to conduct foreign diplomacy as a symbol for his nation (just like his father). He will have the opportunity to build great friendships with China and other East Asian countries while further strengthening ties with the United States (its closest ally and ironclad military alliance partner) and the monarchies of Europe. 



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