Nation, Gender, New Era

Table of Contents

This dialogue discussed the Emperor System in contemporary Japan, focusing not just on the Emperor but also the Empress. The dialogue occurred in April 2019, immediately following the announcement of the new imperial era name, “Reiwa.”

First, Takeshi Hara and Hiroki Azuma confirmed the fact that the Emperor System became stronger in the Heisei era (1989-2019). Emperor Akihito of the Heisei era is generally regarded as a “liberal” emperor. However, Hara pointed out that Akihito proactively conducted imperial visits and court rituals. He and Empress Michiko often met citizens, sometimes kneeling to ordinary people and speaking with them on the same eye level. This type of gesture, which is called “Heisei style,” made the national polity stronger in a very different manner than in the Showa era – in a “micro” manner. In addition, more prayers during court rituals in Heisei cultivated a sense of state unity.

In the background of this Heisei-style was Empress Michiko. Michiko was raised in a Catholic home. Hara suggested that the Heisei style of kneeling to express her sympathy is inspired by Catholicism. According to Hara, the Showa Emperor had already shown movements toward proactively receiving Christianity in his youth. Japan’s Emperor System prolonged itself historically by taking in other religions outside of Shinto, such as Buddhism. The wedding of Akihito and Michiko, Hara stated, can be considered as an extension of this history.

Azuma pointed out that Michiko reflects the state of gender in Japanese society. She provided a breath of fresh air by choosing to raise the Imperial children themselves, as well as taking family trips and creating a “My Home,” which was not permitted before, within the Imperial Family. In this way, she became a model for Japanese housewives of the same generation. However, Azuma also pointed out that Michiko’s behavior reinforced Japan’s conservative views on women. The post-Heisei Empress Masako is a former careerwoman, who suffered because the customs of the old Imperial household did not agree with her. Hara emphasized that the issues of gender centered around Masako themselves are the key to thinking about the Reiwa Emperor System.

As a nation, Japan has long tended to mysticize the thoughts of its Emperor, but with this opening of a new era, we should also open up discussions on the Emperor System and its future into a more vernacular and social conversation.