TOKYO: Japanese Emperor Akihito’s 27 years on the ancient Chrysanthemum Throne have seen him reject the nationalism of World War II and stress the human face of the monarchy.
Now in the twilight of his reign, the slight, soft-spoken expert in fish science known as a modernizing force for the ancient monarchy is again testing the tradition-bound world in which he has spent his entire 82 years.
In a rare video address to the nation he underlined his gradually declining health, which he said may eventually make it hard to fulfil his duties — hinting at a future abdication.
Akihito was born in 1933 just as Japan was embarking on its militaristic sweep across Asia, and was 11 when the war ended in defeat.
Under foreign occupation his father, wartime Emperor Hirohito, went suddenly from a semi-divine sovereign to national symbol.
Though the transition was difficult for his father, Akihito embraced the role and tried to use it to help heal the scars of the war while remoulding the ancient monarchy for a democratic age.
“He loathes charisma and doesn’t seek identity under intolerant nationalism,” author Masayasu Hosaka wrote of Akihito in a book about the two men.
“I don’t think we have ever seen an emperor as honest and human and who has fought so hard in his times.”
Even before he assumed the throne, Akihito broke with tradition when he married the daughter of a wealthy flour magnate in 1959, becoming the first imperial heir to wed a commoner.
While their wedding was a national sensation, Empress Michiko acknowledged in 2007 the challenges of being a royal after taking a break to recover from physical problems related to mental stress.
Despite being officially barred from commenting on politics, Akihito has found ways to make his own anti-nationalist views known.
During an encounter at a 2004 imperial garden party, he was heard telling an official he did not support forcing schools to fly the national flag and making students sing the national anthem – an ode to the emperor.
Speaking at a memorial marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender last year, Akihito also expressed “deep remorse” for Japan’s actions in World War II.
His words were interpreted by some as a rebuke to nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has pushed to change Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Akihito has also actively sought to soothe the wounds left by the war with symbolic visits to former Pacific battlefields including Okinawa in southern Japan and the islands of Saipan and Palau, as well as the Philippines.
He made a landmark trip in 1992 to China, where millions died in the war, but a hoped-for visit to South Korea never materialized because of unresolved tensions over the legacy of Japanese colonialism.
On a 1975 trip as crown prince to Okinawa, where brutal fighting in the closing months of the war took a heavy civilian toll, he narrowly missed being hit by a Molotov cocktail.
“He’s the quintessential representative of the post-war generation that just did not believe that there was any redeeming aspect to the war,” said Kenneth Ruoff, author of “The People’s Emperor” and director of Japanese studies at Portland State University.
Ruoff stressed that the significance of Akihito and his wife has gone beyond a commitment to peace, and extended to a powerful engagement in social welfare.
He cited as an example Akihito’s embrace of the Paralympics as a personal cause in the 1960s at a time of particularly harsh social attitudes towards the disabled in Japan.
Ruoff also said they have made a point of reaching out to what he calls the “geographically marginalized” in Japan with visits to remote islands.
“The greatest legacy of Akihito and Michiko is their concerted effort to lend imperial prestige, to lend their social prestige, to the least privileged members of Japanese society,” he said.