Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative, a Tokyo-based think tank.
In the 1,400-year history of the Imperial House of Japan, no emperor has traveled as much as Emperor Akihito. In his 30-year tenure — scheduled to end when he formally abdicates on Tuesday — he has traveled to each of the 47 prefectures of Japan at least twice and has been to as many as 36 countries. Before Akihito’s ascension to the throne in 1989, only Emperor Hirohito, his father, had ever been abroad: on official visits to Europe in 1971 and to the United States in 1975.
Yet Akihito’s journey was not just about travel in its most literal sense. It also saw him overcome challenges alongside his wife, Empress Michiko, to embody his constitutionally mandated role as a “symbol of the state and unity of the people” and bring the royal family closer to the everyday citizen.
After Japan surrendered in 1945, when Akihito was just 11 years old, the very existence of the imperial system looked to be in peril. Emperor Hirohito was seen as responsible for World War II, and there were calls for his resignation both from within and outside Japan. In the United States, according to a Gallup poll in 1945, 70 percent of the public favored prosecuting the emperor for “war crimes, execution, imprisonment or exile.”
In the end, the imperial system survived the war and its aftermath. The “symbolic” monarchy in Britain inspired the American drafters of the postwar Japanese Constitution, and by redefining the emperor as a symbol, the monarchical house was saved.
In this symbolic role, Akihito has left a legacy of demonstrating compassion. After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the couple visited the disaster zone and knelt down to closely listen to the victims and offer comfort. Akihito gave his first televised address, expressing his hope that people help each other “overcome these difficult times.”
He has also showcased his commitment to memory and reconciliation. In 1994 and 1995, the imperial couple visited Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa to pay respect to those killed on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. The couple would later visit Saipan in 2005 and then Peleliu in 2015. In his speech at Peleliu, he told the audience he had come to remember “all those who had lost their lives,” not just the Japanese war dead, an emphasis he has made repeatedly when paying respect to victims of war. Far from overlooking Japan’s past, Akihito said in 2009 that he was “worried that past history may be gradually forgotten.” Akihito was also the first emperor to visit Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1991, Singapore in 2006, the Philippines in 2016 and Vietnam in 2017.
Though he has never visited South Korea — in recent years, a visit has become all but impossible as relations have hit a historic low — Akihito has not shunned away from the close historical connections between the two countries. In the lead-up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, he told reporters, "I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea,” noting that the mother of an ancient Japanese emperor was believed to have descended from a Korean line. While expressing his gratitude that Buddhist and Confucian practices had arrived in Japan from Korea, he also voiced regret that “Japan’s exchanges with Korea have not all been of this kind.”
These undertakings have sometimes left Akihito and the imperial family at risk of politicization. That became most clear during his visit to China in 1992, which the Chinese government saw as an opportunity to break through the isolation and fierce criticism after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Japan saw as a chance to resolve long-lasting historical issues. Despite his visit, Japan-China relations improved little, reaching a crisis point when tensions flared up over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2010. Across Japan, a lesson was learned: Do not use the emperor for political ends.
For Akihito’s predecessors, mere existence was often enough to ensure the survival of the Imperial House. He, on the other hand, had to earn his legitimacy. During this process, Empress Michiko also played an invaluable role. But the very fact that the three decades-long Heisei Era is the first in modern Japanese history to pass without a war is a testament to their legacy.
If Akihito has any regrets, it is likely over the current situation in Okinawa. Many see the placement of U.S. military bases in Okinawa as an unfair burden. He no doubt regards the cracks that have grown between Okinawa and the rest of Japan with concern.
As he has approached the end of his journey, Akihito has looked to the future. In February, he remarked in an address that “Japan needs to open up to the world further.” This was not long after a trip to Shizuoka prefecture, where the imperial couple encouraged immigrants learning Japanese. This show of unity and support for social cohesion and diversity was significant at a time when the Abe administration has begun opening the doors to foreign workers.
In the February address, Akihito expressed his hope that his successors “continue to add and complement to the role of the emperor as the symbol of the state.” The Oxford-educated Crown Prince Naruhito and the Harvard-educated Crown Princess Masako will face a challenge to follow in the footsteps of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Together, the next imperial couple will have to show their worth through keeping Japan together and united at a time when the country is experiencing dramatic geopolitical struggles and social transformation.