The End Of An Era: Japan’s New Monarch And What It Means To Japanese Economy

Janani Janarthanan

April 30th, 2019 / 11:59 AM

Japan’s New Monarch

Image credit: Wikimedia, Wikipedia

An ageing Akihito (85 years old) on Tuesday (30 April 2019) will abdicate the Chrysanthemum throne after a 30-year-long reign in the land of the rising sun. A new ‘Reiwa’ era will dawn on the archipelago nation on Wednesday morning as the Emperor’s son, the Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the throne. The name ‘Reiwa’ translates into “beautiful harmony” which is symbolic of the task ahead for the new emperor with the end of the Heisei (translates to achieving peace) Era that began back in 1989. However, accompanying this fresh start is a volley of changes in Japanese society.

Akihito’s abdication of the throne over health concerns is a change from the usual hereditary transfer of monarchical power that follows the death of an imperial predecessor. The last time a Japanese monarch abdicated his throne dates back to Emperor Kokaku in 1817. Akihito himself ascended the throne in 1989 following the death of his father, the late Emperor Showa who was the incumbent emperor during Japan’s participation in World War II and the post-war pacifist-constitutional changes. However, his son (Naruhito) will rise to power with the emeritus emperor slowly reducing public appearances including the swearing-in of his son.


The New Heir

Naruhito (59) is the first in a new breed of Japanese royalty who attended Oxford and researched for two years on the history of the Thames River Transportation systems. His wife is a diplomat with a Harvard degree who is said to be currently recovering from her postpartum stress around producing a male heir. The royal couple’s only legacy is a 17-year-old daughter Aiko who cannot ascend the throne after her father because of the patriarchal values that dictate the monarchy. The next in line is Naruhito’s 12-year-old nephew, Hisahito.


Bureaucratic Changes

On May 1, Naruhito’s Reiwa Era will begin and so will the calendars in Japan. Every Government Form, from Tax Returns to Marriage Registrations will have to incorporate the change of the imperial era as they follow the Imperial calendar. The ‘gengo’ or the era name will also feature on coins, official paperwork and the calendars in Japan. This ancient technique of measuring time with the emperor’s reign in today’s day and age has garnered considerable protest.

The New York Times reported that a lawyer, Jiro Yamane, has even sued the government over the change, arguing that forcing people to measure time by the life of the emperor violates their constitutional right to individual dignity. While the rest of the world follows the Gregorian calendar, Japan uses the calendar only to coordinate with global events and international affairs.


Economic Changes

The effect, however, is not limited to the calendars. Japan is the third largest economy in the world and a fundamental change like this will have a decisive economic trail too. Japan’s economy is slow and sluggish at present with an annual growth of 1.9% (2018).

Japan has experienced this declining trend since the 1990s, and its ageing population contribute to it.

The transition to the new era in the industrial city of Nagoya alone is said to cost a whopping 4.3 million dollars. In Koga, employees preparing for the change accidentally erased 1650 water bills. Scamsters are capitalising the turn of the era and asking the older population to submit personal bank details so that they are in tune with the transition according to the National Broadcaster NHK.

The transition to the new era involves software updates to existing systems and while this change may be smooth in relatively modern companies, it will have a huge effect on big companies with complicated systems according to Gaku Moriya, deputy director of the information technology innovation division at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) who spoke to New York Times.

While expenses surmount with the new era, it also opens the door to newer business avenues and prospects. It is expected to refresh the people’s spirits and turn the business climate favourable in terms of consumer spending and capital investment. Businesses are looking to sell new era merchandise and have the public make impulsive purchases on collectables that usually follow the birth of a new year.

The Nikkei Asian Review spoke to Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui DS Asset Management who said that commemorative consumption will have a major impact, and many businesses that offer experience-based consumption opportunities will enjoy a boost.

The country of Japan is currently on a 10-day public holiday on account of the Annual Golden Week, Akihito’s abdication and the coronation of the new king. The review also said that traders on the Tokyo Stock Exchange are preparing for a surge in Reiwa-related stocks when the market goes back online on May 7. When the era name Reiwa was announced on April 1, TV commercial production company Ray Corp. saw its shares rise 19% on hopes of new orders pouring in. Businesses are trying to incorporate the word ‘Reiwa’ in their domain names and a domain registration service operated by GMO Internet has seen 2,752 applications in the three weeks leading up to April 22.

Ceremonies and historic sites related to the imperial family is also expected to attract a lot of traffic from within the country and outside with the transition.


A Decorated State Symbol

The powers of Japanese Monarchy, however, are extremely limited. With the end of the Second World War II, the pacifist post-war Japanese Constitution stripped the monarchy of its powers and cited his role as a “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people.”

Other powers include receiving foreign dignitaries, awarding decorations to Japanese citizens, convening the Diet, and officially appointing the Prime Minister as selected by the Diet. (The National diet is Japan’s bicameral legislature consisting of a lower and an upper house which bears a similarity to the Parliamentary system in India)

The wave of changes that follow the new era transition brings up the question as to why a nation has to undergo all this trouble to preserve the last vestiges of imperial power. But this question seems paltry in the face of a country that prides itself on its culture and wishes to preserve its tradition. Its culture contributes to the fabric of Japan’s identity. A similar tradition persists in England, where Queen Elizabeth II is one of the longest living monarchs known to the modern world as enjoys select prerogative powers including declaring war, signing peace treaties, regulating civil services and awarding citizens among others. Countries like Bhutan, Canada, Jordan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia and even Spain are some of the other examples of contemporary Constitutional Monarchies.


Imperial Pardons

On May 1 with Naruhito’s ascent to power, offenders’ pleas to clemency might also be heard.

Japan’s Imperial tradition involves issuing pardons during Imperial family events. Pardons were awarded last in 1993 on the occasion of the marriage of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako.

The Japan Times reported that before this, pardons were granted in 1989 in line with the death of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, and in 1990 to mark the enthronement of his son, Emperor Akihito, covering 10 million and 2.5 million people, respectively.

While this tradition does not cover serious crimes keeping in mind the feelings of victims, the practice is still considered to be outmoded.


A Glorious Reign

Akihito is venerated and considered to be a revolutionary Emperor compared to those before him by Makoto Inoue, a Japanese journalist who has written books about the Imperial system.  

He also added that Akihito has changed the monarchical symbol to that of a human being from the god-like status monarchs enjoyed before Akihito. He famously travelled the world conveying his regret over the wartime scars and even personally consoled victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns.

NBC News reported that Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said Akihito has reinvented the role of the emperor and soothed the suffering of people scarred by war and natural disasters.

What lies ahead for Naruhito is to maintain the goodwill that his father has left behind and pull Japan out of his sluggish growth. His accession has Japan looking forward to a fresh start and new found sense of hope for future possibilities.


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Written by : Janani Janarthanan (Intern)

Edited by : Bharat Nayak

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