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Japan switches from Heisei to new Reiwa era, but old cultural and political faultlines remain

For all the hype, and acres of newsprint and online space about the new emperor, and, prime minister Shinzo Abe’s determination to milk the change for electoral advantage, any talk of a new era is largely wishful thinking.

Written by Kevin Rafferty |
Updated: May 1, 2019 9:00:27 am
Japan’s old ghosts will continue to haunt it, and no political leader has shown a clue on how to frighten them away. (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

Japan is making much fuss, including an unprecedented 10 consecutive days of holiday, over the end of the Heisei era and the beginning of Reiwa on May 1, as Emperor Akihito abdicates in favour of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

For all the hype, and acres of newsprint and online space about the new emperor, and, prime minister Shinzo Abe’s determination to milk the change for electoral advantage, any talk of a new era is largely wishful thinking.

Japan’s old ghosts will continue to haunt it, and no political leader has shown a clue on how to frighten them away: Deep scars remain from war and defeat, the economy is sluggish, population decline is beginning to bite, Japan Inc — meaning the business and bureaucratic establishment — remains set in the post-war past; while politicians’ horizons, with Abe leading the pack, get pushed further back.

Akihito deserves the praise heaped on him. He has shown himself as a caring father figure: In tough times, after a volcanic eruption, or earthquake, or nuclear meltdown, Akihito and Empress Michiko were quickly on the scene, bending to mourn, comfort and listen to the concerns of the devastated people in ways unthinkable before. Akihito has consistently displayed a common, relatable touch, absent in other Japanese leaders, especially politicians.

The question remains whether Naruhito can fill his father’s shoes. He has the advantage of a good education, including two years at the Oxford University, where he did his own laundry, and flooded the room. He married a highly intelligent and personable woman, Masako Owada, herself educated at both Harvard and Oxford, who gave up a burgeoning career as a foreign ministry diplomat.

Naruhito pledged his love and protection for his princess. But his wife still suffered from crushing court protocols, retiring from public life several times because of nervous exhaustion — no doubt affected also by pressures to produce a male heir, unsuccessfully. Indeed, even their daughter, Princess Aiko, now 17, took days off from school in her early teens because of “fatigue”. Despite their foreign experience, the new imperial couple have remained hidden — imprisoned, I am tempted to say — behind the court walls.

In Japan, there is always a big gap between form and substance. From May 1, the Heisei era will be gone and Reiwa year one will start. Many dates, from identity cards, government bills and even local train tickets are designated in terms of the imperial era — so a bus ticket issued on May 31, 2019, would be Reiwa 1, 05, 31; a local council bill for 2020 would be Reiwa 2; and someone born in 1961 was born in Showa 36, referring to the era of Akihito’s father, Hirohito.

The emperor may control the calendar, but he is not even the head of state. According to Japan’s constitution, he is the symbol of the state. Walter Bagehot famously said that the British monarch had limited but powerful powers, to consult, advise and warn the prime minister. Japan’s emperor does not regularly meet Abe in the way that the British prime minister goes to Buckingham Palace every week, usually on a Wednesday at 6.30 pm, to inform the queen of what is happening.

Even the name Reiwa was chosen by the government with no input from the emperor, neither Akihito nor Naruhito. Reiwa has been officially translated as “beautiful harmony”, and Abe boasted that the name came from an ancient Japanese anthology of poems, instead of drawing from old Chinese texts, as with previous era names. The “rei” character is sometimes used to mean “command” or “order”, which would fit Abe’s philosophical vision.

In applauding the choice of Reiwa, Abe stressed the importance of traditional values. This reflects the crux of Japan’s problems: At the very start of Reiwa, it is stuck with old attitudes while the world changes around it at whirlwind speed. Critics concede that the Heisei era was marked by peace, but also by natural disasters and economic stagnation. Reiwa offers a new opportunity, they contend. Innovation should be a Reiwa goal, claimed one commentator. That’s perhaps even nicer than the American belief in motherhood and apple pie, but wishing it isn’t the same as achieving it.

Abe reigns supreme politically, but owes his dominance to an uneasy coalition of lukewarm reforming conservatives and traditional conservatives who thrive on pork barrel politics. This has led to awkward choices of ministerial colleagues, not least of which is Yoshitaka Sakurada, who recently resigned as Olympics minister: He had previously been a cybersecurity minister who could not use a computer, and, in 2016, he described Korea’s comfort women — press-ganged by the Japanese Imperial Army into brothels for the troops — as “professional prostitutes”.

Abe learned his politics literally at the knees of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who signed Japan’s declaration of war, but escaped punishment to become a post-war prime minister. He still carries the baggage of war in his determination — despite popular opposition — to change Japan’s “no war” constitution to legitimise its armed forces. This has also undermined Japan’s repeated apologies for wartime atrocities, which China or Korea do not consider to be very genuine.

Internationally, Abe has put his faith in Donald Trump, who will be the first foreign leader to make a state visit to Reiwa Japan. But Abe’s faith in his buddy Trump is risky. The US president is unhappy about Japan’s trade surplus and is likely to turn on Abe to demand damaging changes in their trade relations.

Bias towards Trump’s US also leaves Japan blindsided in dealing with China or responding to South Korea’s initiatives with the North. Abe’s own hardline views have made him come across as unreliable in Beijing, Seoul, not to speak of Pyongyang. Japanophiles claim that economically and socially, the country is managing its relative decline. Unemployment is at a record low, and female participation in the labour force is as high as in the US. Abe has opened the door to large numbers of immigrants to fill labour shortages.

But this is a roseate view. If immigrants enter in the numbers required to sustain the economy, will they become confined to ghettos or be allowed to compete for top jobs — something Japanese women have failed at? Because Japan Inc resists women: There is no woman heading a Nikkei 225 company, only 6.5 per cent of women as directors in the top companies, no woman heading a major bank or university, and, only one woman in Abe’s cabinet.

Japan Inc and innovation are almost polar opposites, even as leading companies like Olympus, Toshiba, Tokyo Electric Power, Kobe Steel, not to mention the car company Nissan, succumb to scandal, financial irregularities and poor management. The electronics company Sharp suffered the indignity of being bought by Hon Hai Precision (Foxconn) of Taiwan.

There’s nothing magical that a new imperial reign can accomplish, especially as Abe and his conservatives refuse to allow women to sit on the Chrysanthemum throne: After the Crown Prince ascends the throne, from May, there will only be three male heirs, aged 53, 12 and 83. Innovation is hardly in evidence except on the cultural fringes, including manga.

But hey, Japan is the safest country in the world, even though it’s living beyond its means. The water is warm and it’s only getting hotter slowly, as the frog said, on the way to being boiled to death.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 1, 2019, under the title ‘New era, old scars’. The writer is former editor of The Financial Express and has covered Asia as reporter and editor for 50 years.

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