Imperial shift
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: June 4, 2019

With a history-making abdication and a new emperor on the throne, professor Ken Ruoff explains this new era for Japan.

APRIL 30 marked the end of an era, when Japanese emperor Akihito, 85, citing declining health, abdicated the centuries-old Chrysanthemum Throne. He was the first emperor in 200 years to do so; the position is usually only vacated when the emperor dies.

The next day, Akihito’s son, 59-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, became the new emperor, ushering in the Reiwa reign.

Beyond mere ceremony, the name change is a very big deal in Japan. Chosen by the Japanese government, Reiwa means “beautiful harmony.” It’s used in myriad ways—from commercial marketing to official documents—that touch the everyday lives of all Japanese citizens. One of the most prominent ways is in the Japanese calendar. While the Japanese go along with the rest of the world in using their own versions of May, June, July and so on, their years are marked by the official name of the emperor’s reign. 

So while it is 2019 in the rest of the world, it is now Reiwa 1 in Japan.

On the day the Reiwa was announced, the New York Times reported “businesses, including toy companies, calendar makers and official stamp producers rushed to introduce versions of their products featuring the new era’s name.”

Although the Japanese emperor has no official governing duties, the position—the longest-running monarchy in the world—is looked upon by the Japanese people as a way of defining who they are. He (the monarch must be a “he”) establishes national identity. The emperor’s birthday is a national holiday.

“There are people in Japan who say this is what makes them special. The emperor defines what it is to be Japanese,” says historian Ken Ruoff, head of Portland State’s Japanese Studies program and one of the world’s leading authorities on the Japanese royal house.

IT’S BEEN a busy winter and spring for Ruoff who, because of the abdication, has been deluged with interview requests from the New York Times, Time Magazine, Associated Press and other major news outlets. In one interview request, a journalist for the monthly Japanese magazine Sentaku called Ruoff’s book The People’s Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995 “the most important thinking on the Imperial House of all time either here in Japan or elsewhere.”

In March, the Japanese news conglomerate NHK flew Ruoff to Tokyo for several shows it was producing about the abdication. NHK staff interviewed him extensively, as did a crush of reporters from other Japanese media—all because his first book, published in 2003, was so passionately received by the Japanese public. His newest book on the Heisei Monarchy (1989-2019) has been a best-seller in Japan since its release in January.

And then at the end of April NHK flew him back again to serve as a studio analyst during coverage of the abdication and enthronement ceremonies.

“Almost any time there’s significant news from Japan, the Japanese journals come calling to me for commentary,” he says.

Ruoff got his first exposure to Asian history as an Ithaca, New York, high school student in the early 1980s. At the time, “world history,” as taught in schools was really the history of Western civilization. But when his school brought in a Chinese history professor from nearby Cornell University, Ruoff had an epiphany. He realized that here was this big, fascinating story about a huge region of the world that rarely got mentioned in the high school curriculum. 

As a Harvard freshman, Ruoff took a survey course about Japan, and soon after became an East Asian studies major and started learning the Japanese language. He took his first study trip to Japan in 1987.

“I had this amazing host family. They were super kind, and the mom was ruthless about teaching me Japanese,” he recalls.

Two years later, while in graduate school, when emperor Hirohito was on his deathbed, a journalist asked the mayor of Nagasaki if he thought Hirohito was responsible for World War II. The mayor said he did, and the public reacted with a visceral backlash. Someone even tried to kill him.

“It made me realize the taboos that existed in talking about the emperor,” says Ruoff. “And I realized that through the monarchy, I could learn so many more things about Japan and what it means to be Japanese.”

ACCORDING to Japanese myth, the royal lineage is an unbroken thread that goes back 2,600 years, although historians have only been able to trace it back to about 300 A.D. Throughout the centuries, the emperor was considered divine: a direct descendent of the Sun Goddess, and the pure embodiment of the Japanese people. That is, until 1945 when two atom bombs, the loss of World War II and the Allied occupation forced the country into collective soul searching. Along with this newfound identity crisis, Emperor Hirohito renounced his divine status, but all the other symbolic importance remained.

While Hirohito’s 62-year reign saw the country through military expansion, war and humiliating defeat, Akihito was all about peace. His era, Heisei, is roughly translated as “achieving peace,” according to Ruoff.

“For 30 years, every other word out of his mouth has been ‘peace,’” he says.

In many ways, Akihito brought closure to the postwar era. He issued apologies to Korea and China for Japan’s wartime aggression. As crown prince in 1964, he embraced the Paralympics, which began to erode societal stigmas about people with disabilities.

“In Japan in 1964, the common view of the handicapped was that they should be hidden away, kept separate from mainstream society,” Ruoff says. “Today, leaders of associations for people with disabilities have publicly credited the emperor for the fact that their position in society has improved dramatically over these past decades.”

As emperor, Akihito was known as a man of the people—a stark contrast to his father. While Hirohito maintained his regal bearing from a distance, Akihito mingled with the population, visited social welfare agencies, knelt on the ground with disaster victims and instilled a spirit of volunteerism.

And on the international stage, where right-wing populism has been taking hold in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, Akihito held back.

“He has refused to lend his name to any sort of chest-thumping, Japan-first nationalism,” Ruoff says. “He’s OK with the Japanese people taking quiet pride in their country.”

THE NEW emperor faces a country that is undergoing big changes. The population is aging and the birthrate is low. Immigration is changing the makeup of the country in small but growing ways. And Japan, with an LGTBQ community that is becoming more prominent, is becoming more diverse. 

Naruhito already has said that his reign will be about respecting diversity while keeping the country unified, Ruoff says. And he knows it’s going to be a big challenge.

In some ways, the new emperor already symbolizes some of the social changes that have been happening in Japan. In a country where sex roles used to be strictly delineated, Naruhito is a hands-on dad. In 2002, photos of him carrying his baby daughter on his back, and laughing as she pulls his hair, went viral. It was such a departure from the manly image of the Japanese male, let alone a crown prince.

“Through giving the princess a bath, taking her for walks or giving her baby food, I myself feel a strong bond with my child,” he said at the time.

One thing is for sure: He holds enormous power to steer the country just by his presence.

Says Ruoff, “Because the emperor has such great social prestige, any time he gives a nod or recognition to a social movement, it reinforces that movement.”

John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Caption: (Left) Professor Kenneth Ruoff is interviewed by Aiko Doden, host of Newsline In Depth on NHK World, about the abdication. NHK brought Ruoff to Japan several times for interviews.