When the Japanese say it’s the end of an era, they mean it. April 30 is the official end of the Heisei era in the world’s 11th-most populous nation; the following day, May 1, is the start of the Reiwa era.
Heisei translates roughly as achieving peace; Reiwa means beautiful harmony. Both admirable aims but why the change?
Eras follow emperors in Japan. This week, 85-year-old Akihito will step down from what is known as the Crysanthemum Throne. The last time an emperor abdicated was in 1817. The next day, his 59-year-old son, Naruhito, steps up to become the 126th head of the world’s oldest continuous ruling dynasty, which has a crysanthemum as its imperial standard.
Rather than having to mourn an emperor’s death, the nation will instead be able to celebrate the change of head of state with a record 10-day holiday called Golden Week, from April 27 to May 6, which includes a couple of weekends and a new national day off in honour of Naruhito’s ascension.
While some hard-working Japanese people are bemused by having 10 days leave foisted upon them, others have seized the chance to go on overseas holidays.
Domestic tourist offerings include wedding packages at midnight to span the two eras, and sunrise charter flights around Mount Fuji so that passengers can witness the dawn of a new era over a national symbol.
What’s behind all the excitement? How does an emperor ascend a throne? Who are Akihito and Naruhito? And what difference will a new era make?
How big a deal are emperors in Japan?
Big, at the very least, in the sense that the ruling family’s continuity is unique. The Imperial family can trace its first emperor back to Jimmu in 660BC. By comparison, the House of Windsor, originally German on the paternal side, was formed in 1917, though the British royal family can claim descent back to Alfred the Great, who died in 899.
Emperors are also a big deal in the sense that, historically, Japan’s Imperial family was believed to be descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu who sits above the 8 million gods of all things in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. Emperors still regularly perform Shinto rituals – the emperor has a staff specifically to help with religious rites.
In April, for example, Akihito wore a tuxedo to visit the Ise Shrine of Amaterasu in western Japan to give the gods the heads up that he was abdicating. His daughter, Sayako Kuroda, is the shrine’s Supreme Priestess.
While emperors were believed to have a close relationship with the gods, they were not considered gods themselves, although during the war years of Ahikito’s father, Hirohito, they came close to being touted as such. An estimated 3 million Japanese people died in the war. For many, their final words were «Tennoheika Banzai!» (Long live His Majesty the Emperor).
There was a course correction on the matter of the emperor’s deity status after World War II, when occupying US forces insisted that Hirohito publicly renounce «the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world».
Rather than ditching the role of emperor post-war, Japan’s pacifist constitution of 1947, which is still in place, calls him «the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.»
As the constitutional monarch, he formally appoints the prime minister and chief justice of the Supreme Court, and performs other ceremonial functions but, unlike Queen Elizabeth, is not the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Much of his family’s personal wealth was confiscated after the war, but the state maintains the extended Imperial family with annual allowances and the state looks after palaces in Tokyo and Kyoto, with trappings including an orchestra, horse stable and silkworm cocoonery, where Empress Michiko reportedly helps feed mulberry leaves to the silkworms and weaves straw for them to spin cocoons inside. (One of Akhito’s interests is fish science, especially goby fish. A new species, Exyrias akihito, was named after him.)
How does an emperor abdicate?
Queen Elizabeth, at 93, is now the longest-ruling British monarch and has so far declined to step down, instead allowing her heir, the Prince of Wales, to absorb more royal duties. But Akihito, who attended the Queen’s coronation has taken quite a different tack.
«If I cannot fulfill my duties as head of state, I should step down,» he said in his second-ever televised address to the Japanese people, in 2016. Although he did not use the word «abdicate», his obliquely worded statement made clear that his «declining fitness» – he had coronary bypass surgery in 2012 –was making his job hard to do, and that he did not want the role of emperor diluted by diminishing his duties or sharing them with his son, Naruhito, as Prince Regent.
He also appealed to the fact that he was, after all, an elderly person in a nation known to have a rapidly increasing ageing population.
It became clear that the public sympathised with him, and Japan moved to create a new process to allow Akihito to step down, which the Japanese parliament, the Diet, finally voted through in June 2017.
In April, he visited Hirohito’s tomb to tell his father of his retirement. His visit to Ise Shrine in western Japan was for a ritual involving three imperial treasures that are key to the abidication and ascension process: the Imperial Mirror, the Imperial Jewel and the Imperial Sword. Each plays a part in ancient mythology and, as is the way with many ancient relics, these items are kept in boxes so no one knows what they look like.
The sword and jewel also feature in the actual Ceremony of the Abdication of His Majesty the Emperor, a 10-minute procedure in the Hall of Pine, known for its polished wood floor, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, which will be attended by 330 dignitaries on April 30. The sword and jewel will be placed on stands when the emperor and empress enter the room before Prime Minister Abe declares that the emperor will abdicate, and expresses his gratitude to him on behalf of the public.
Akhito will then give his final speech as emperor – which will no doubt be an emotionally charged affair – before he and the empress retire to the Togu Palace in Tokyo, where they lived before taking the throne.
What kind of job has Akihito done?
As the first Emperor to start his job under Japan’s post-war constitution, Akihito has had a rather wide brief – to be a symbol of Japan.
Reconciling the nation with its war past has been a consistent priority. He was still a boy during World War II, evacuated during the firebombing of Tokyo. «As I grew up, there was not a time without war,» he has reflected, adding that he felt «an acute sense of sorrow and grief» for the soldiers and civilians who died.
As Crown Prince, he braved a mixed reception – and a Molotov cocktail attack – on a visit to the island of Okinawa, where one in four people had died when Japanese forces resisted surrender at the end of the war. He became Japan’s first modern monarch to visit China, in 1992, and expressed «deep sorrow» for the suffering Japan inflicted on the Chinese people.
In 2005, he initiated a visit to the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific and bowed at the Banzai Cliff, where Japanese civilians jumped into the sea rather than surrender to US troops during fighting in 1944.
«When I saw the image of the emperor and empress on Saipan,» one 82-year-old woman told the press this year, «I felt they were truly sorry for the sins the Emperor Showa [the posthumous name for Hirohito] had committed. I was moved.»
On the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, Akihito went so far as to express «deep remorse» over the war, a nuanced departure from his annual script. Liberals and moderate conservatives saw it as a subtle rebuke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his less apologetic stance.
Akihito has also famously swung into action after natural disasters. After the Mount Unzen volcano erupted in 1991, he stunned onlookers by kneeling on the bare floor of an evacuation shelter to speak with survivors.
He made his first televised address in 2011 to urge the public to help one another after the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and spent weeks travelling to meet with survivors. A week after being discharged from hospital following his heart surgery, he attended a memorial service for victims of the earthquake and tsunami.
He also delivered a modern love story to his subjects by marrying a commoner, Michiko Shoda, now 84, who he met at a tennis tournament in 1957. His «love match» was a radical departure from imperial practice. The couple also broke with tradition by largely raising their three children themselves.
«Looking back,» Akihito said in a birthday statement in December, «it was soon after I embarked on my life’s journey as an adult member of the Imperial Family that I met the Empress. Feeling a bond of deep trust, I asked her to be my fellow traveller and have journeyed with her as my partner to this day.»
What will Naruhito be like as emperor?
As the first modern Japanese emperor to have been born in peacetime, Naruhito is more distanced from the war shadows hanging over his father. Known as Prince Hiro before he became Crown Prince in 1991, he had a cosmopolian upbringing, which included a visit to Melbourne in 1974. A mild-mannered musician and historian, he is also the first emperor to have studied abroad, spending two years in Oxford researching the history of Thames River transportation systems (and wrote a memoir about it called The Thames and I).
Like his father, he married a commoner, Owada Masako, in 1993.
For many Japanese, the incoming couple have ignited hopes of a more modern chapter: they are both highly educated, multilingual and deeply involved in issues such as global warming and child poverty.
But it is Princess Masako whom many Japanese will be watching closely. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she was famously one of only three women out of 800 applicants to pass an entrance exam to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987, leading to a high-flying diplomatic career.
But her struggles to adapt to imperial life were well documented. Reportedly facing intense pressure to produce a male heir, she suffered stress-induced «adjustment disorder», causing her to disappear from the spotlight for years.
That hasn’t stopped many Japanese, particularly women, pinning their hopes – albeit cautiously – on her becoming a much-needed catalyst for modernisation.
Asked about the prospect of Masako being the empress, one office worker told The Telegraph this week, «Ah yes, Masako-san. She is very clever but has had a difficult time. It’s been hard for her to shine as she is kept inside a box. But I hope this will change.»
The couple’s only child, 17-year-old Princess Aiko, is also preparing for a higher profile but she is not in line to the throne. The absence of a male heir in the imperial family for many years caused hand-wringing, including moves to change the law to make it possible for firstborn females to inherit the throne. But when Naruhito’s younger brother, Prince Akishino, had a son in 2006, Prince Hisahito, the reforms were promptly shelved. Akishino and Hisahito are second and third, respectively, in line to the throne.
Naruhito will make his first public remarks as emperor shortly after he ascends to the throne this week, which might offer hints about his goals or hopes for his reign.
How does one ascend a throne?
A 10-minute ceremony on May 1 will see the new emperor, dressed in a Western tailcoat, inherit the imperial regalia. Chamberlains will put the state and privy seals, and the sword and jewel on desks in front of him as proof of his rightful succession.
The ceremony is observed by a small group that includes adult male royalty and representatives of the three branches of the government, including Abe and his cabinet. Satsuki Katayama, the only female minister in Abe’s cabinet, will be the first woman in modern history to attend. Akihito and Michiko will not be present.
The new emperor and empress will then make their first public appearance, greeting well-wishers at the palace. They will appear six times during the day with a large turnout expected – more than 100,000 people flocked to see Akihito and Michiko in 1990.
A series of planned banquets include one hosted by Abe, to which 900 people have been invited.
Already, Abe has invited Donald Trump to be the first foreign leader to meet the new emperor when the Trumps visit Japan in late May.
Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said receiving Trump as the first state guest of the new imperial era would «symbolise the unshakeable bond of the Japan-US alliance».
The opportunities for regal diplomacy won’t end there. Naruhito will be enthroned on October 22: wearing traditional robes, he will sit in an elaborate pavilion and when its curtains are drawn open he will declare his accession. Prince Charles and Princess Diana were among the 2200 people who attended the ceremony for Akihito in 1990.
Then, the following month, there will be a Great Thanksgiving ceremony in Tokyo, where the emperor will offer wine and sake to the gods and partake of them himself as he prays for bumper crops and national peace.
What difference will the eras make?
The name Reiwa was chosen after much deliberation and debate by the government, which consulted with a panel of nine experts including Nobel Prize-winning scientist Shinya Yamanaka. «Reiwa» appears in a poem about plum blossoms from the Manyoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poems. It’s also a very Japanese-sounding name; previous era names have come from Chinese classic literature, so some see Reiwa as a move by Abe to boost national pride.
As well as appearing on coins, government stationary and souvenir bean buns, T-shirts and lollies, the eras are the traditional way for Japan to count time. While the Gregorian calendar has been adopted widely, government and business documents and stamps used in official transactions still use imperial dates. This includes tax returns, bills and marriage certificates. Local governments are spending big money on recalibrating their systems, with one reportedly losing hundreds of residents’ water bill records in the process.
As The New York Times reportered, the new era «will force the country’s sprawling bureaucracy to literally turn back the clock to Year 1. Experts compare it to Y2K, the digital threat in the lead-up to the year 2000, if on a much smaller and less consequential scale.»
Some analysts expect the change of era to generate an economic boost, with one estimating that extra spending on weddings alone would amount to ¥86 billion (more than $1 billion).
Because holidays are thin on the ground in Japan – compared with Australia, at least – many people are also seeing Golden Week as optimal travel time, especially to popular destinations such as Hawaii and Europe. While they jet off, some 25 million domestic tourists are also expected to be travelling to other parts of Japan.
But not everybody is sure the holiday will provide a net contribution to the economy. Japan’s biggest car maker, Toyota, will be closed for nine days from April 27, and many factories will come to a halt.
Another potential downside of the long holiday is that many of the nation’s 22 million part-time workers will, in effect, take pay cuts as a result of shorter working hours.
Meanwhile, financial market traders are worried that the shutdown could cause disruptions and unsettle the yen.
A survey by the news agency Jiji Press found that 40 per cent of Japanese people interviewed were unhappy about the looming holiday, outnumbering the 36.5 per cent who were glad.
– with AAP, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and NHK