Japan′s Emperor Akihito: his life and legacy | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 30.04.2019
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Japan's Emperor Akihito: his life and legacy

As a new imperial era begins in Japan, Emperor Akihito has left behind a legacy of modernity and compassion. During his 30-year reign, he defied monarchial norms, drawing both criticism and praise.

The reign of Japan's Emperor Akihito officially ended on Tuesday, and many Japanese are looking back at his "Heisei" era, which was marked by economic and political turbulence. 

Japan's economic boom slowed down during this time, with the country dropping behind China as the world's second-largest economy while accruing an unprecedented national debt. The Heisei era also saw 17 prime ministers, with only four lasting more than two years. Many Japanese refer to the era as the "lost decades." 

However, Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko provided a source of consistency and reliability for Japanese society during these uncertain times. They consoled victims of natural disasters, provided a humanitarian example, and became a symbol of Japan's moral conscience by retaining the memory of World War II. 

Read more: Japanese emperor stresses his peaceful reign ahead of abdication

Redefining Japan's monarchy

When Akihito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989, Japan's imperial dynasty was in a crisis. After Japan's defeat in World War II, the Japanese emperor was no longer considered a divine, god-like figure. Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, attempted to bring the throne closer to the Japanese people after the war, but Japan's traditional reverence for the emperor was still too large a gap to cross.

Read more: 'No consensus' in Japan about wartime past

Looking for change, Hirohito tried to emulate the constitutional monarchy in Great Britain. He selected the American children's book author Elizabeth Gray-Vining to be his son's private tutor, and hoped to raise a new kind of emperor. Gray-Vining was able to instill foreign ideals in Akihito along with a European understanding of monarchy.

Akihito would end up marrying a middle-class woman named Michiko. They raised their children in their own home and sent them to study at Oxford University in Great Britain.

The wedding photot of Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko

Akihito and Michiko's wedding photo in 1969

An emperor for the people

After he became emperor, Akihito wanted to change Japan's imperial institution, which is known as "Tenno." After he took the throne, he said he would always consider the happiness of the Japanese people and make sure the emperorship was suited to modern Japan.

Together with his wife, Akihito prioritized his relationship with the Japanese people and made frequent public appearances. After a volcanic eruption in 1991, Akihito and Michiko went to the disaster area in ordinary clothes and consoled the victims. Japanese conservatives were shocked by the action, but the media, and the Japanese people, loved it.

Read more: Japan's conservatives concerned at precedent of emperor abdicating

The couple redefined the role of the imperial family. They met with victims of tragedy and visited people in retirement homes and handicapped care centers. They found a warm-hearted reception everywhere they went and Akihito became a symbol of Japan's national integration.

"In the Heisei era, this new style was well received as social inequality grew and many people fell into depression and lost perspective on life," said Hideya Kawanishi, an expert at Nagoya University on Japan's monarchy.

Japan's royal couple at the 70 year anniversary of the end of World War 2

Akihito expressed words of regret at the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II

Reconciliation with the rest of Asia

Akihito also had to contend with the legacy of his father, in whose name the Imperial Japanese Army took over half of Asia during World War II. To this day, Japan's conservative elites are reluctant to take responsibility and apologize for the suffering Japan caused during the war.

Although he was technically forbidden from making political statements, Akihito made a point to visit Indonesia and China during his first trips abroad. In China he expressed regret for Japan's aggression and praised the accomplishments of Chinese culture, while reminding Japan of how much they owe their own culture to China.

Read more: Hirohito wartime memoir sells for $275,000

When Japan's nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided using the word "regret" during a 2015 speech for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the emperor gave his own speech and spoke about Japan's "deep self-criticism."

"To put it bluntly, Akihito was more committed to reconciliation with Japan's neighbors than most Japanese prime ministers during the Heisei era," said historian Torsten Weber from the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo.

Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito

Akihito and Michiko's succesors: Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako

Akihito and Michiko also visited the Philippines and World War II battlefields between the US and Japan on Pacific islands. Akihito was unable to directly apologize for the war due to law, but he was always able to carefully find words to express regret and prayer for all victims of war.

Continuing Akihito's example

According to experts on Japan's monarchy, Akihito abdicated the throne early due to pressure from Japanese conservatives who say his health is failing and that he is too old. Akihito was said to have been concerned over the legacy of his reign and preserving the image he created for Japan's monarchical institution.

"Akihito wanted to abdicate early in order to transfer his activities untarnished to his son," said expert Kawanishi. In February, the successor to Japan's imperial throne, Crown Prince Naruhito, confirmed that he would continue the work of his parents.

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