Michael Auslin

Modern Japan is a model of stability, thanks to its ancient imperial family

Modern Japan is a model of stability, thanks to its ancient imperial family
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Japanese Emperor Naruhito was formally enthroned this week, in the second of three major ceremonies marking his accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne. As Brexit chaos continues to paralyse Britain, impeachment roils American politics, and months of anti-China protests rock Hong Kong and flummox Beijing, Japan again offers an example of political and social stability regularly overlooked or dismissed. Even as the country recovers from a devastating super typhoon, it celebrates a new sovereign whose era name, Reiwa (beautiful harmony) is undoubtedly the envy of other great powers being tested at home and abroad. Some of Japan's stability may well come from the symbolic role the imperial family plays, and its conscious appeal to the past.

The new emperor succeeded his father, Akihito, in May, after the first imperial abdication in over two centuries. Akihito’s decision was precipitated by poor health, yet after his three decades of faultless service on the throne, there were no serious movements questioning whether the imperial family was an anachronism in the 21st century, or demanding that this was the moment to end the monarchy. Instead, Naruhito on May 1 seamlessly received two of the three imperial regalia, an ancient sword and jewel, as well as the seals of state, in the first of the accession ceremonies, held in the Imperial Palace. All told, 52 separate rituals will be performed from March of this year through April 2020, many of them created specifically for the unprecedented abdication.

On Tuesday, Emperor Naruhito participated in a day’s worth of ceremonies, seen only once in the past 93 years, when his father was enthroned in 1990. The streets of downtown Tokyo were closed to traffic as the emperor and empress rode to and from various palaces, though a public parade was postponed due to the aftermath of the typhoon. The ceremonies started with a morning private ritual at three sacred shrines inside the Imperial Palace precincts, where, garbed in pure white court robes based on 8th-century models, he informed the Japanese gods of his accession. Then, in the afternoon, as nobility and dignitaries from 180 countries watched, the drapes of the 21-foot-high, 8-ton Takamikura ('High Seat'), topped by a golden phoenix, were opened to reveal the emperor, now garbed in golden court robes, who publicly announced his enthronement. Next to him, in a smaller throne, Empress Masako appeared in even more elaborate court dress, wearing a twelve-layer kimono. Next month, the emperor alone will personally offer food to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, in a mysterious nighttime ritual called the Daijosai (Great Harvest Ceremony), the most sacred of the enthronement acts.

The impression of eternal immutability these ceremonies provide belies the fact that, under its placid surface, Japan faces daunting challenges. It has never recovered fully from the popping of its asset bubble at the very end of the 1980s, and many of its companies have not recaptured their competitiveness. It has been eclipsed by China, especially in cutting edge technology such as artificial intelligence; its grim demographic picture – the country recorded the sharpest drop in births in 30 years last year – clouds its future economic possibilities; it now has a nuclear-armed North Korea to worry about; poverty measures are rising; and it is facing headwinds from the US-China trade war. Nor were prior decades free from social trauma: massive demonstrations erupted during the 1960s over foreign affairs and domestic politics, while homegrown terrorists struck in the 1970s and 1990s, including the infamous sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1995.

Since the collapse of Japan's economic miracle thirty years ago, the world has largely ignored the country, focusing instead on China's rise. Yet when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulated the emperor in front of the imperial throne on Tuesday, he did so during Japan’s most stable political period in decades; indeed, Abe is now the second-longest serving premier in the postwar period, having returned to office in December 2012, after a previous one-year stint. Abe has forced through a raft of economic reforms designed to shake up the sluggish economy through regulatory reform, changes to land ownership, liberalising the energy market, and encouraging female labour participation.

Abe also has worked steadily to improve Japan’s international standing, deepening relations particularly with India, Australia and southeast Asia. He has also increased defence spending each year in the face of Chinese and North Korean threats, giving Japan one of the most capable military forces in the world; the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces have been larger than the Royal Navy for a decade, albeit without the nuclear submarines. He has spent an enormous amount of time cultivating personal relations with Donald Trump, being seen as one his closest allies.

While the ultimate success of Abe's policies remain uncertain, Japan’s ongoing slow growth since the 1990s obscures its continuing top rankings in global health measures and educational achievement, as well as its high per capita GDP. Its politics are not poisoned by Twitter or cable television, and it remains astonishingly crime-free. Its populace also seems comfortable with what is largely a one-party democracy, giving the ruling Liberal Democratic Party a near-super majority in the national Diet. And, as the citizens’ response to super typhoon Hagibis showed, a powerful communal sense remains, as it did after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Perhaps some degree of Japan’s social stability can be attributed to the imperial family. Unlike the scandal-ridden royals of other countries, today’s Japanese nobility are models of propriety. Once tainted by charges of war crimes during the 1940s under Emperor Hirohito, the postwar imperial family has eschewed even the hint of politics, focusing instead on higher education and uncontroversial patronage of social institutions. And in handing over power to his son, Emeritus Emperor Akihito may have sent a subtle message about how a rapidly ageing Japan can maintain its traditions while flexibly responding to current conditions.

Just as importantly, the family has changed with the times. The emperor himself studied for several years at Oxford, back in the 1980s, while the empress was educated at Harvard and was a rising young diplomat before exchanging her briefcase for white gloves and pillbox hats. Both she and her mother-in-law, the empress emerita, were born commoners, as was her sister-in-law, whose 13-year old son is now second in line of succession (the emperor and empress have only one child, a daughter, who is not eligible to succeed to the throne, based on current law).

And yet, for all their adaptations to modern life, the emperor and his extended family provide a seemingly unchanging reference to Japan’s indigenous religion and ancient traditions. In a post-modern world wracked by eternal impermanence, the symbolic role of Japan’s imperial family may add an indefinable ingredient to the material achievements of the postwar Japanese state. Among a sea of democracies that appear to be tearing themselves apart, perhaps that role, as imagined as it is real, is more important than ever.

Michael Auslin is the Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.