Dawn of the Reiwa period
OSAKA, Japan — By sheer coincidence, I arrive in Japan on the day a new emperor, the 59-year-old Naruhito, ascends the Chrysanthemum throne. While many Japanese are probably more preoccupied with the extended Golden Week holidays, the fact that special coins and cocktails are being sold to mark this event means its significance is not lost on the public. Considering that the last time an emperor ascended the throne was in 1989, this moment is truly rare and makes for a timely occasion to reflect on Japan’s place in the world, particularly in relation to the Philippines.
Of course, the Imperial House itself is a signifier of continuity; the Yamato dynasty’s line of succession dates back to the mists of prehistory. Across millennia, the role of the emperor has fluctuated but many customs have persisted, reflecting and reinforcing the traditional character of Japanese society. This includes male-line imperial succession that will see Naruhito’s nephew Hisahito—not his daughter Aiko—someday inherit the throne.
The high standard of living will also likely continue — notwithstanding the fact that the Japanese economy has not grown for the past three decades. Even without the maglev trains and self-driving cars that might figure in next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the shinkansen and the subways remain the envy of Filipinos, and the Filipino traveler cannot help but lament the present disparity between the two countries.
Still, there will doubtless be changes (and challenges) that would characterize the coming decades. In the first place, there’s the demographic trend: More than half of babies born in Japan today expect to live to 100 and this astounding longevity will take its toll in economy, health care and other sectors. Ultimately, Japan will have to open its doors to more immigrants, a move that will entail a rethink of the country’s notoriously demanding work culture — and toxic attitudes toward gaijin.
Another change is geopolitical: The emergence of neighboring China as an economic and military superpower, and the relative decline of the United States—Japan’s military ally. In this aspect, the existence of an emperor is not artifactual: While Japan is still constitutionally pacifist, the emperor has served in the past as a rallying point for a militaristic nationalism that ultimately led to World War II.
As far as the Philippines is concerned, I see relations continuing to improve, not just in terms of diplomacy in light of the above, but in terms of trade and cultural exchange. Japan’s loosening of its visa regime has seen more and more Filipino tourists trooping to the temples of Kyoto and the slopes of Mt. Fuji, adding to the numerous Filipinos who work and study here. Overall, I see this as a positive trend that can inspire us to imagine what our country can become—and make us realize the virtues of cleanliness, punctuality and self-imposed discipline.
But for all the equanimity we have for it, Japan will have to come to terms with the inconvenient truths in its history. The now-retired Akihito may have been a peacemaker who expressed “deep remorse” over World War II, but the Japanese government’s successful efforts to have a comfort woman memorial in Manila removed speaks of a wartime past that needs to be more fully acknowledged — not just outwardly but inwardly, that is, in the way the Japanese educate their youth.
How will Naruhito — the first Japanese emperor to study abroad — comport himself amid a changing Japan? Like today’s surviving royals, I see him trying to get closer to the people and being more open to modernizing the monarchy, and while we may never know his views on controversial issues like whaling and nuclear power, surely the coming environmental crises will not be lost on an avid mountaineer and longtime advocate for water conservation.
What else does the coming years and decades hold? Like the garden in Ryoan-ji where one can never see all 15 rocks from any vantage point, our view of the future will always be incomplete, but I only have the best hopes for the Japanese people at the dawn of the Reiwa period.
May it truly signify “beautiful harmony,” not just for their country but for the rest of the world.
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