April 29, the previous Emperor’s birthday, is known as Showa Day in Japan. The holiday was defined as a day to reflect on the tumultuous Showa era and the ensuing reconstruction that Japan underwent and to think ahead to the future of the country. While there are no traditions associated with this holiday, some — frequently older generation’s — households raise the national flag.
The Showa era began in 1926 when the previous Taisho Emperor passed away. Since the Meiji restoration, the Japanese government replaced the previous practice of renaming the era whenever a significant national change occurred, whether it be an Emperor change, economic crisis or a natural disaster. Instead, the past three Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras and the current Heisei era has been named for each new Emperor as they stepped into the position as the symbol of Japan.
The current Emperor, known as Heisei or Akihito Tenno, expressed his desire to resign from his post the day before the 71st Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Memorial Day, August 9, and seven days before August 15, the end of World War II. The current constitution states that the Emperor must serve until he dies. There has even been speculation that Emperors’ deaths have been delayed so that it does not fall on holidays such as the New Years. After 5 years of talks with the Imperial Household Agency, Akihito Tenno communicated his will to the Japanese citizens in a video message. He believes it best to allow his young and healthy son to step into the position of Emperor, due to Akihito’s own deteriorating health that has limited his public appearance and interaction with Japanese citizens.
The Imperial family, especially the Emperor, stands as the symbol of the Japanese people. The exact text of the Constitution, written by the Japanese and American government after the second World War, describes the Emperor as the “symbol of the country and the harmony and unity among citizens.” However, for thousands of years before the end of the World War II, Japanese Emperors have frequently held political power whether it be as figureheads or as directly involved politicians. In the oldest, Shinto and somewhat mythical Japanese text called Nihonshoki (“Japanese written records”), the imperial family is described as descendants of Amaterasu Oomikami. He reigns as the most powerful among all deities that are said to have contributed to the creation of Japan.
The Japanese imperial family’s connection to Shintoism was abused during World War II efforts. The Emperor’s former status as Arabitogami, the embodiment of heavenly powers, became convenient for the pan-East Asia imperial school of thought that drove Japanese invasions during this World War. At the end of the second World War, in what is known as Gyokuonhousou “the pearl-sonic announcement,” Showa Tenno announced his status as human, which came as a great shock for the Japanese public at the time. Today, many respect but do not glorify the Emperor. While he may live in a modest palace, his state of constant surveillance as well as the duty to serve his citizens undoubtedly makes his life less than luxurious and desirable.
Because Akihito is the first to serve as the symbolic Emperor, he has set the tone for the future Japanese Emperors and Imperial family members to follow. Members of the imperial family today host foreign dignitaries and visit pre-schools and disaster-stricken areas. When the Emperor visited refugee centers after the earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear disaster in 2011, he knelt on a lower floor level than the refugees around him, bowing in admiration and encouragement of their recovery efforts. The Emperor’s posture sends the message that not only is his heart with those who suffer but also are those of citizens from across the country. His citizens see him actively engaging with the public and choosing to visit as many sites as reachable. Akihito Tenno has exemplified what a symbol of a generally peace-loving nation may look like.
The end of April through the first week of May is known as the Golden Week in Japan, and contains multiple holidays. The next politically charged holiday in this series of days off from work and school is the Constitution Day on May 3. In Japan, the Constitution has never been amended in its 71 years of existence. Yet there have been two recent movements to make amendments. The first is the push to alter the imperial system. Some advocate to allow empresses to carry the imperial lineage, while others push to achieve Emperor Akihito’s wish to retire. Another movement strives to better define and expand the Japanese self-defense force’s capacities. Currently, the Japanese self-defense force members may not act as combatants even in the name of humanitarian aid. Some suggest this change to allow Japan to better engage in Peace-keeping Organizational efforts in conjunction with the United Nation in the belief that by increasing PKO involvement, Japan can become a better agent for peace. Others lament the Japanese reliance on American military powers and push for expanded allowances to the self-defence force so that the military can act pre-emptively when the country is threatened. The American military bases throughout the country –particularly concentrated in Okinawa, a southern island that was occupied by America towards the end of the War– have caused many issues such as rape, airplane crashes, the Japanese government’s financial burden, and noise.
Surely, neither of these movements for Constitutional change can become easily successful. However, these holidays can not only allow the frequently overworked Japanese people to take a break but also serve as a reminder for citizens to continue such constitutional discourse.