Heir to an unbroken lineage, Naruhito became the 126th emperor to ascend the chrysanthemum throne in 2019. One week before the Tokyo Olympics, it plunged into the oldest imperial dynasty in the world.
Japan and its Olympics
Japan fascinates. Its innumerable temples, its cherry blossoms, its thousand-year-old traditions preserved from any outside influence. Among these curiosities, one of them, more political, attracts attention: the imperial dynasty. The Land of the Rising Sun is one of the forty or so monarchies or empires still in operation. Not without some peculiarities.
In the archipelago, the emperor is “the symbol of the state and the unity of the Japanese people.” According to the first chapter of the Constitution promulgated in 1947.” In Japan, this article means that he is relatable from national identity, “explains Jean-Marie Bouissou, representative of Sciences-Po in Japan and author of Leçons du Japon, un pays very incorrectly.
“The Japanese cannot imagine a Japan without an emperor.”
Christian Polak, businessman, writer, and founding president of a French consulting firm in Tokyo, confirms: “He is the roof of the house. In everyday life, we do not look at his terrace every day. If one day there is no more roof, everything collapses. “
The base of Japanese history, the imperial family, is very popular in Japan. “The Japanese who were born before World War II lived with a divine emperor, in this case, Hirohito, the grandfather of the current Emperor Naruhito. Thus, this generation cares very much for the imperial family. The young people, much less “, analyzes Christian Polak.
An observation shared by Yuki Jourdan Ôtsuka, a Japanese translator living in Kyoto: “I remember that my maternal grandparents had photos of the imperial family hanging on the wall. My paternal grandfather, for his part, respects still very much the Imperial family despite Japan’s role in WWII. “If she recognizes that the imperial family is strongly attached to the daily life of the Japanese, she nevertheless feels less close than her grandparents. “We feel a great respect from the Japanese for the imperial family,” says Alexandrine Trichet, a 33-year-old French woman married to a Japanese man and living in Tokyo for six years.
“You don’t see (the emperor) often, but he is seen as a guardian who watches over the country.”
Alexandrine Trichet, French expatriate in Tokyo for 7 years.
Besides, the media are also very respectful towards the imperial family and are very careful with how they talk about it. “When we talk about the imperial family on television, we use the address with the magnificent. There is even a whole vocabulary of their own. I have never seen anyone speak ill of the imperial family in media,” says Sayaka Goryo, a 28-year-old Japanese woman living in Tokyo.
The emperor is the titular patron for the Tokyo 2020 Games and is widely respected in Japan, but he holds no political power.
It is rare for him to speak out on such an important and controversial topic, and his views carry weight. His warning will embarrass the government and the International Olympics Committee. Still, it has come too late to cause a change of heart among organizers, who are determined to start the Olympics Game on July 23. After a one-year delay because of the pandemic.
Olympics Time, Pandemic Safety
While the Olympics Game will take place behind closed doors, nothing has filtered out whether the Imperial Family will be present at the opening ceremony or during the two-week test. “If the emperor appears, the foreign press will write about him, scrutinize his every move, which the Japanese especially do not want, says Jean-Marie Bouissou. They are afraid that some will take advantage of it to sully him. Everything around the emperor must be under control. “
The roles of the emperor
In Japan, the emperor has a representative role and is devoid of any political power. The Prime Minister appointed by the Diet, the Japanese parliament, officially receives his appointment to the Imperial Palace during an official ceremony. The emperor can also promulgate amendments, convene the Diet, dissolve the lower house, call elections. Still, the prime minister always has the last word, and his main functions are submitted to parliament. “If he is devoid of political power, he does, however, have the one that makes him the symbol of Japan. He is, therefore, listened to,” adds Jean-Marie Bouissou.
The imperial family should not comment on what is happening on the archipelago, much less the country’s political life. “Everything they say is painstakingly prepared and controlled by the Imperial Household Agency. We don’t expect anything other than trivialities when they speak. They have no freedom. We don’t want to. Let there be any surprise,” explains Muriel Jolivet, a sociologist living in Japan for 45 years and author of the book Chronicle of an ordinary Japan.
And Olympics role of Japan’s emperor in 2021
According to the head of the Imperial Household Agency, Japanese Emperor Naruhito turns out to be “concerned” that this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo could cause a rise in coronavirus infections.
Even Naruhito’s grandfather, Emperor Hirohito, formally declared the Tokyo Olympics opened in 1964.
Organizers declared this week they would allow limited numbers of domestic spectators to attend events at the Olympics, with 50 percent of a venue’s capacity.
But concerns are also rising about keeping the athletes safe, healthy, and able to compete after a second member of a Ugandan Olympics team tested positive for the coronavirus.
A myth for an official history
Legend has it that the imperial lineage begins in 660 BC with Emperor Jinmu. He would descend from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, herself the daughter of the Creator Gods of the terrestrial world, Izanagi and Izanami. “The emperor, until 1945, had divine status. He was an incarnate divinity, and this status is symbolized by the imperial symbol, the sword, the shield, and the jewel”, recalls Christian Polak.
The legend has never been questioned by the Japanese people when presented as the country’s official history. “The Japanese know very well that this is not true. But it is a beautiful story. They do not seek to know more”, specifies Jean-Marie Bouissou. Moreover, Akihito was the first Japanese emperor to be crowned without a divine character in 1989. The new Constitution withdrew this exalted status in 1947, dictated by the Americans, after the defeat of the Japanese.
Akihito, the emperor with a new lease of life
Today emeritus Emperor Akihito, and father of Naruhito, breathed new life into the prerogatives linked to his role. “Since around 2011, Akihito has inaugurated a new, more modern style, with compassion for his people, showing himself close to them,” explains Muriel Jolivet. The imperial couple particularly took place with the Japanese victims of natural disasters, frequent in Japan, showing a very human character.
They have also visited the disaster scene on numerous occasions to provide support to the refugees. “They were dressed very simply. This attitude made them very popular. We had never seen this before. At the scene of natural disasters, he was always ahead of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.”, continues the sociologist. A posture that Naruhito, the new emperor, commits to pursuing.
Three years to surrender
In 2019, Akihito surrendered at age 85 after three decades on the Chrysanthemum Throne. Tired, he asked in 2016 to hand over the baton to his son, Nahurito. “Akihito did not want to reproduce what his father had experienced. Hirohito died on the throne, after a prolonged agony because we did not want him to die before the end of the year”, explains Jean-Marie Bouissou.
However, the Constitution does not provide for the modalities of abdication. Since the emperor has to die on the throne, the government must approve a special law. “It suited a lot of people to say that the emperor could not abdicate. Of course, the Constitution does not mention that he can, but in fact, many emperors abdicated before him,” adds Jean-Marie Bouissou.
Because it is not because the emperor decides to surrender that he can, he must have the authority to do so. “It took a long time. There is an old guard in the Liberal Democratic Party who considered that the emperor was a demigod. And therefore, a god does not surrender,” analyzes the specialist in Japanese history. Despite a Constitution dating back more than 70 years and indicating that the emperor is no longer a deity, old traditions are tough. However, seeing public opinion react very favorably to the sovereign’s request, the former government of Shinzo Abe finally accepted.
A lineage that hangs by a thread (s)!
With Emperor Naruhito, the descendants of the imperial family became more complex. Indeed, the number of boys in the imperial family is shrinking. “The drama of the Japanese imperial family is that there are only girls,” smiles Muriel Jolivet. If the current Emperor Naruhito were to die, having no son would be the Crown Prince. His brother, who would ascend the throne. But then it complicates the task. Two options are on the table: either the crown prince’s son takes over from his father, or Naruhito’s daughter becomes empress. But the question divides on the archipelago: will women be able to ascend the throne?
Nothing expressly indicates that the Japanese Emperor must be a man. In addition, there have already been several empresses, the “last of which reigned in the 18th century”, underlines Jean-Marie Bouissou. But “the Japanese political class is very conservative and sexist. The opposition comes more from the side of the politicians than of the emperor, who, him, would like his daughter to inherit the throne. It is naturally thought that only a man can. The government says ‘if the daughter of the emperor accedes to the throne, they must change the Constitution”, analyzes Muriel Jolivet. For the time being, this thorny question is not on the agenda. Nor a priority for the imperial family, which is careful not to put the subject back on the table.
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