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Reiwa, Akihito and Japan's Future Policy Challenges

Three Questions to John Nilsson-Wright

Reiwa, Akihito and Japan's Future Policy Challenges
 John Nilsson-Wright
Senior research fellow – the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House

On April 1st, the Japanese government announced the new imperial era name "Reiwa". The imperial era names are a longstanding Japanese tradition, typically marking the transition from one emperor to another and often used to signal a change of direction for the country. Beginning on May 1st, "Reiwa" marks the end of one reign and the start of another as the Emperor Akihito abdicates the throne in favour of his son, Naruhito. As the country goes through this transformative moment, emotions and hopes are focused on the future while many in the country are inevitably reflecting on the past. John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, shares his analyses.

What does the choice of the two characters "Reiwa" tell us about the strategic orientations of Japan?

Following the formal abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30th, and his replacement as Emperor by his son, Naruhito on May 1st, Japan has embarked on a new imperial era. To mark this transition the former era, "Heisei" ("establishing peace") has been replaced by "Reiwa" ("auspicious"/"beautiful" "peace"/"harmony"). The government of Shinzo Abe has intentionally selected, for the first time, two ideograms drawn from Japanese classical poetry rather than relying on Chinese literary traditions. By confidently asserting Japan’s cultural identity, Abe and his fellow conservatives may be hoping to foster renewed pride in Japan’s past.

Japan has embarked on a new imperial era, to mark this transition the former era, "Heisei" ("establishing peace") has been replaced by "Reiwa" ("auspicious"/"beautiful" "peace"/"harmony").

Also, by selecting terms associated with seasonal, natural imagery, the government may be hoping to avoid any negative, militaristic connotations and to promote an image of the country that resonates with the government’s focus on multilateralism and a cooperative approach regionally and globally. Eager to underline its commitment to a "rules based international order", the Abe administration has understandably opted for terms that imply cooperation and stability.

What is the legacy of Emperor Akihito of the Heisei Era? 

Akihito ends his thirty year reign as Emperor widely popular with the general public in Japan. This reflects his assiduous support for Japan’s culture of post-war pacifism, symbolised by his periodic new year statements underlining the importance of avoiding conflict and by his frequent visits (at home and abroad) to former battlefield sites to commemorate the combatants, both foreign and Japanese, of past pre-1945 conflicts. Unencumbered by the baggage of his father, Hirohito, whose reputation had been coloured by his association with the pre-war militaristic regime, Akihito has been seen by many progressives in Japan, as the embodiment of postwar Japan’s democratic, liberal values.

Yet, the imperial institution (as opposed to Akihito personally) remains a source of political contestation, with conservative writers and politicians stressing its deep historical roots as the world’s oldest monarchy (dating from the seventh century BC), and looking to the associated traditions of Emperor-centered Shintoism as a means of bolstering a more assertive form of identity politics. 

The imperial institution remains a source of political contestation, with conservative writers and politicians stressing its deep historical roots as the world’s oldest monarchy.

With the Abe administration apparently committed to a policy of fostering national pride, whether through constitutional revision or culturally conservative forms of education reform, it remains unclear if there will be any effort in future to promote the Emperor system as a vehicle for patriotic revival. Any steps in such a direction would be hugely controversial. Naruhito, the new Emperor is likely to maintain the de-politicised stance of his father, while epitomising the balance between traditional and modern values that has been a hallmark of the Heisei era.

What are the key challenges faced by Japan in the Reiwa era? 

Japan’s key challenges in the Reiwa era are the familiar ones of sustaining economic prosperity, offsetting rapid demographic decline in Japan, and adapting Japan’s foreign and security policy to an increasingly more unstable global and regional environment. While the country’s is enjoying a historically long period of economic growth, growth itself is very modest at around the 1% mark, and Japan has yet to escape from the trap of persistent deflation or stagnant wages. Low productivity in key sectors remains a problem, as does the challenge of offsetting the relative growth of rival economies, most notably China and India, and the rise of trade protectionism, particularly as practiced by a more explicitly transactional United States. Abe’s willingness to open the country partially to increased immigration of 340,000 over the next five years may help address the country’s chronic labour shortages but risks stimulating a populist backlash at home. In foreign policy, the country’s more proactive, minilateral approach, involving a range of new security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and beyond is sensible, but may be undercut by capacity constraints, Japanese public nervousness about the risk of being inadvertently embroiled in new conflict situations, and the challenge of working effectively with Japan’s core alliance partner, the United States.


Copyright : JIJI PRESS / AFP

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