International Forecaster Weekly

Japan’s Emperor Is Abdicating. Here’s What It Means.

The hope for many is that this coming period will be one of renewal for the Japanese, economically, politically and otherwise...

James Corbett | March 30, 2019

Sometime this weekend, the cabinet members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party will be locked in a room without communication devices of any kind. Not so much as a smartwatch will remain as they engage in deliberations, and they will stay locked in that room until the decision that they reach is announced to the public.

So what life-and-death decision will be made in this top secret meeting? The formulation of a new national security strategy? The revision of the constitution? A declaration of war?

Not quite. They're going to choose the name for the next era in the Japanese calendar. Confused? Don't worry. Here's everything you need to know about the change over in Japanese emperors (but were too embarrassed to ask).

Wait . . . Japan still has an emperor?

Yup. The Japanese imperial family is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in existence and the head of that family is the only head of state on the planet with the title "emperor."

Long story short: According to tradition, a military commander by the unlikely name of Kamu-yamato Iware-biko no Mikoto took the somewhat less unlikely name of "Jimmu" and donned the title of "Emperor" in 660 B.C. Oh, and he was a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. (Of course, modern historians will tell you this is all just legend, but "modern historians" are the kind of spoilsports who tell you kuniumi is just a myth, so boo-urns to them!)

Then a bunch of stuff happened.

Then WWII happened. On the verge of defeat, the Japanese said, "Hey, we'll surrender if you guys let us keep our Emperor." So the US said "No!" and dropped a couple of nukes on them for emphasis. So Japan surrendered. But they got to keep their Emperor anyway, on the condition that he is no longer even a nominal chief executive of the country like most other constitutional monarchs.

So, yes. Japan has an emperor.

So why is the emperor abdicating?

Because he's old. You try being responsible for the health, well-being and operation of your country (read: occasionally having tea with foreign royalty and bestowing honors on Rockefellers) when you're 85 years old!

In August 2016, Emperor Akihito gave his second ever televised address to tell the Japanese people that "when I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now." From that point, lawmakers scrambled to prepare the transfer of the throne to the next in line, Akihito's oldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

Still, given that the emperor's figurehead role is presumably exactly as stressful as he wants it to be, and that he really doesn't have to do anything or make any appearances if he doesn't want to, one has to wonder why Akihito has become the first emperor in 200 years to abdicate the throne.

The real answer will lie buried in the mess of Japanese imperial politics, which has a lot to do with Japanese far right wing groups who take the literal god status of the emperor very seriously and still hold the same ambitions for a militaristic Japanese Empire that motivated the Imperial Army in the early 20th century. Could it be that Akihito is not willing to play ball with Abe and his cohorts as they push for an amendment to the constitution and a return to Japanese militarism? It is at least a possibility, but one thing is for certain: The internal deliberations of the Imperial Household will never be laid bare for the public to see.

So, like the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the true tale of this abdication will be shrouded in rumor, mystery and gossip for some time to come.

What do we know about the next emperor?

Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1st. Born in 1960, he will be 59 years young when he becomes the world's only recognized emperor.

But in case you were worried that Naruhito will buck tradition, reform the system, abolish the Imperial Household, or anything dramatic like that, you'll be reassured to note that he has been indoctrinated at the same elite Western institutions as his father, having studied at Oxford in his 20s. In fact, that's where he met his wife, an Oxford/Harvard-educated diplomat.

In other words, expect no serious changes in anything substantive from the Emperor-in-waiting. But I suppose we'll have to get used to the sight of a slightly younger-looking figurehead having tea parties with foreign royals and throwing soirees for Rockefellers.

For what it's worth, the Japanese press and academics at the "respectable" Japanese universities assure us that Naruhito is well-liked by the Japanese people. Unfortunately, it's worth nothing. Most Japanese don't care or think about the imperial family at all, and a former student of mine told me he only looked forward to the day when Naruhito became emperor because they shared a birthday, and in Japan the emperor's birthday is a national holiday.

What's this business about choosing an "era name?"

The calendar on your wall might tell you that it's 2019, but on the Japanese calendar it's currently 31. That is the 31st year of the "Heisei era," which is the official name for the era under the rule of the current emperor, Akihito. He ascended to the throne in 1989, which became the year 1. His father's era was known as the "Shōwa era" and lasted from 1926 (Shōwa 1) until 1989 (Shōwa 64).

So where do the era names come from? Era names are taken very seriously and are usually drawn from traditional Chinese texts, as "Shōwa" (with the meaning of "period of enlightened peace/harmony" or "period of radiant Japan") derived from a passage in the Chinese Book of Documents, and "Heisei" (with the meaning of "peace everywhere") was taken both from the Book of Documents and the Chinese Records of the Grand Historian.

Yoshihide Suga has revealed that the name of the next era is being deliberated on by a panel of "experts in Japanese literature, Chinese literature, Japanese history and Oriental history," and from that point the potential names will be passed to the cabinet for that closed-door meeting that I mentioned above. In a bold move that would be sure to cause a stir among people who care about such things, the inside skinny indicates the next era name might come from classical Japanese texts! I know, I know, you'll need a minute to catch your breath.

More seriously, Japanese tend to think of history in terms of these eras and identify strongly with the era in which they were born. The Heisei era, having started at the very peak of the Japanese bubble madness, has been defined primarily by the popping of that bubble and the resulting Lost Decade(s) of economic stagnation. The hope for many is that this coming period will be one of renewal for the Japanese, economically, politically and otherwise, so the next era name will likely try to reflect that plucky optimism.

I have some bad news for those hoping for a happy boom time in the next era of Japanese history, however.

...And this is causing a "Y2k-like dilemma" how, exactly?

As we've just learned, we are currently in Heisei 31. As in the 31st year of the Heisei era. So as of May 1st, it's going to be the Year 1 again. And, just like Y2K caused much consternation and hand-wringing about the consequences of "99" turning to "00," so, too, are the Japanese worried that the first era rollover in the age of modern computing will throw off spreadsheets, mess up servers, cause robotic dogs to marry robotic cats and generally generate technological mayhem.

So concerned is the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, in fact, that they recently held a joint press conference with Microsoft Japan, Inc., to raise awareness of the issue among Japanese businesses. And don't worry, everybody, Microsoft has started offering an update to Windows to account for the era. I mean, we wouldn't want Windows to crash, would we?

Then again, Y2K was a gigantic bust, so don't go investing in that technological apocalypse survival kit just yet. . . . Actually, why not invest in that?

How will all of this effect the power grid?

Glad you asked! So in Japan there's a special time of year around the end of April / beginning of May referred to as "Golden Week." And what is so special about it, pray tell? Why, it's the time of year when Japanese can expect a whole week full of public holidays! (Or at least a good extra-long weekend.)

You see, there's a group of public holidays that fall around that time, generally giving people at least five days in a row off. For a country where workers generally don't take long vacations, a full five days in a row off counts as a long vacation. So it's also a very busy time of congested roads and railways as everyone tries to cram their holidays into this short window.

Well, all of that travel madness is going to be amplified this year. Given the special days off that are being added in this year for all the changing-of-the-Emperor festivities, Japan is going to have a luxurious ten-day Golden Week. That's right, a full ten days off in a row!

So what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Nothing. But what does it have to do with the power grid? Well it seems that all of those businesses being closed for so many days in a row will actually lead to an oversupply of power and thus to blackouts as the grid is overwhelmed.

How to combat this? Given the abundance of solar power in the country (thanks to years of government incentives to install solar panels), the greatest chance for a blackout will be during the day time, when all of that solar energy is being fed into the grid. So people are being encouraged to use their electricity in the day time to avoid an oversupply.

OK. Thanks for the information, Information Man!

You're welcome!