On Wednesday morning, a mild-mannered 59-year-old will stand in a solemn ceremony to receive a sacred jewel, a legendary sword and the privy seals of Japan making him the Emperor Naruhito, 126th in an unbroken line.
Inheritance of the Imperial regalia will kick off a year of ceremonies, harvest festivals and religious rites involved in turning Naruhito into Japan’s new head of state after Akihito, his father, becomes the first emperor of modern times to abdicate from the Chrysanthemum Throne on Tuesday.
There will be much pomp and great circumstance. Behind the arcane rituals, however, the ascension of Naruhito marks an important turning point for Japan: born in 1960, he will be the first emperor of the postwar generation.
As memories of the war pass into history, a new generation of Japanese conservatives — exemplified by prime minister Shinzo Abe — want to move beyond its legacy and make Japan a “normal” country again. Naruhito’s challenge is to be an emperor for such times.
“Speaking frankly, there is no clear and fixed idea of what a symbolic emperor should be,” said Hidehiko Kasahara, a law professor at Keio University. “They have to change to fit the times.”
Pre-war, Japan’s emperor theoretically had absolute power. The postwar constitution makes the emperor purely symbolic and expressly prohibits any political acts. There are two main theories of how such a ruler should behave, said Prof Kasahara. One is to be a kind of moral guide, speaking out if the nation goes astray; the second is to stay completely neutral, and act simply as a vessel for national unity.
Japan’s royal system has evolved towards the latter. Akihito and his wife travel the country, always quick to the site of any natural disaster, and rally the people. A sense of closeness to the public has contributed to record approval ratings of 76 per cent.
But Akihito’s reign also had a subtext of postwar pacifism. He visited wartime sites at home and abroad — Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa, Palau, Saipan and the Philippines — while his heartfelt repetitions of “deep remorse” stand in growing contrast to the circumlocution of Japan’s politicians.
Naruhito has also spoken about the importance of remembering the war “correctly” but unlike his father, he had no personal experience of it. He will have to weigh his message with care, especially if there is a move to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution in the course of his reign. Silence is a choice in itself, since both the left and right are quick to write their own meaning into the Imperial institution.
“For generations of emperors, whether ancient or modern, since the age of myth, their most important duty has been prayer for the prosperity of the country and the welfare of the people, with the character of a so-called ‘priest king’,” said Masato Muranushi, a spokesman for the conservative group Nippon Kaigi, which has extensive support in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
“Our position is to maintain all the clauses of Japan’s constitution,” said Yasufumi Fujino, a member of parliament for the opposition Japanese Communist party. “As part of that, we support the emperor as a symbol of the Japanese people.”
One extra challenge for Naruhito is the health of his wife Masako, a Harvard-educated diplomat. She suffered depression because of the strictures of palace life and pressure to produce a male heir, and rarely appears in public.
“The public have got used to the Emperor and Empress going everywhere together,” said Yasushi Kuno, a veteran broadcaster who has covered the Imperial household for decades. “It will take time, but the public will get used to them acting separately.”
Naruhito will also have to decide whether to precipitate a debate about female succession. As the law stands, his 17-year-old daughter Princess Aiko will not inherit the throne, which will pass instead to his brother Fumihito and then his brother’s son Hisahito.
Opinion polls suggest the public is moving towards acceptance of a reigning empress — a change that almost passed before Hisahito was born — but conservatives remain firmly opposed. “In Japan, the throne has descended along the male line since time immemorial, going back to the Emperor Jinmu. This system should be sustained hereafter,” said Mr Muranishi.
If there is to be a change, it will need to happen before Princess Aiko gets married, an event that would oblige her to leave the Imperial household under the current rules. Knowing the strain of Imperial life, Naruhito may struggle to decide what he wants for his daughter. A mere symbol the Emperor may be, but a comfortable seat the Chrysanthemum Throne is not.