Tokyo – Japan's new Emperor Naruhito effectively stepped back into the 19th century on Tuesday to participate in enthronement pageantry as he officially ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne. The monarch donned a copper-colored robe like that worn by his great-great-grandfather, an emperor still regarded as "sacred and inviolable."
The 30-minute ceremony saw Naruhito step up to the canopied, 21-foot-high throne to give a speech and receive three "banzai" cheers from the audience, wishing him a long reign. Empress Masako, dressed in a special multi-layered heavy kimono, was seated on an adjacent throne.
It was an elaborate ceremony steeped in tradition, but the fusty trappings of the world's oldest continuous monarchy may obscure the subtle-but-influential activism waged by Japan's modern royals, argues Portland State University history professor Ken Ruoff.
Ruoff has written two books on the Japanese royals, and he told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan that the template for Naruhito was set by his father, Akihito, who pursued a resolutely progressive monarchy that has gone underrated as a democratic force. The previous emperor's reign embodies "what it means to be Japanese," Ruoff said.
Unlike the U.S. and Europe, Japan has remained remarkably free of the populism and partisanship that have convulsed public and private life in other wealthy nations. Scholars like Temple University's Gregory Noble say Japan's relatively low rate of income inequality, unusual homogeneity, enviable public safety and other factors have helped make it resistant to divisive politics.
Legacy of "the people's emperor"
But Ruoff also credits Japan's symbolic leader of the last 50 years, who he terms "the people's emperor."
Akihito set the course in 1969, during his own crowning, when he said: "Constitutionally… it would be best for the imperial family members to be robots," adding that he had no intention of becoming a figurehead.
Despite the often-oblique language the royals are obliged to use, Akihito repeatedly used public occasions to lobby for reconciliation, freedom of expression, and most of all, peace.
"For many Japanese, their definition of democracy includes peace," Ruoff said. "Is there any other pluralistic democracy in the world where people also define democracy as including peace?"
Akihito and his precedent-smashing commoner wife Michiko were tireless champions for marginalized groups, including the disabled and sufferers of leprosy. Japanese TV viewers grew accustomed to seeing the royal couple comfort victims of natural disasters.
What shocked Japanese old enough to remember the aloof Hirohito was the heartfelt empathy of Akihito and Michiko, who often knelt to minister to their subjects. Like Britain's royal family, Akihito and Michiko were in near constant motion, visiting every prefecture and hundreds of communities.
While Japan's conservative ruling party is prone to provocative remarks that incite angry rebukes from Asian neighbors, Akihito doggedly campaigned to heal the wounds of war, mourning not just Japanese dead, but all victims.
Ruoff said Akihito "upped his game" in 2005, when he voiced "deep remorse" over Japan's actions during World War II.
"What stands out is that the emperor and empress pointedly and repeatedly declined to lend their immense prestige to expressions of national pride that were not tempered with cosmopolitanism," said Ruoff.
New era, new challenges
As the 126th occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Naruhito is expected to continue his father's pacifism and tolerance, but by desire and circumstances will put his own stamp on the Reiwa ("Beautiful harmony") era that he rules over.
And Japan's era of harmony will be put to the test as the country prepares to open its doors in April to unskilled foreign guest workers for the first time, raising new questions of citizenship and who gets to belong in Japanese society.
Empress Masako, a former diplomat who suffered bouts of depression after marrying the then-crown prince in 1993, has seemed at last to find her footing and appears to be thriving in her new role. Ruoff noted that the pair offer a stark contrast to their predecessors: While the previous empress was known to exit the car first and bow as the emperor alighted after her, the Harvard-educated Masako and Naruhito come across more as a partnership of equals.
The most pressing issue facing the Japanese imperial household is its potential extinction; after the current generation, there is but a single male heir left to carry on the line.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japan's minority traditionalists oppose it, a majority of the Japanese public favor allowing women to sit on the throne.
"There are very few monarchies left that limit it to patrilineal lineage only. It's basically Japan and a few Muslim countries, the most famous of which would be Saudi Arabia," said Ruoff, a point he said bolsters the case for future female Japanese emperors.
The White House released a statement Tuesday morning in which President Donald Trump congratulated Japan on the enthronement of its new emperor, which he said "comes at a time in which the bonds of friendship between the American and Japanese people have never been stronger. Our global partnership is an unshakeable pillar of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the world."