Japan Quietly Passes Into a New Era. CHANGES ON CHRYSANTHEMUM THRONE
THE ancient land of Japan, has passed, with deep sadness, into a new era. With the death of Emperor Hirohito, a crucial link to Japan's pre-war, feudal past has been lost. The 87-year-old monarch occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne longer than any of his predecessors.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In the unbroken line of the oldest surviving hereditary monarchy in the world, his 62-year reign was the longest. At the time Hirohito became the ``Tenno'' - the ``heavenly sovereign'' - he was revered as a god in the pantheon of Shinto, Japan's religion of ancestor and nature worship. Although Hirohito renounced his divinity at the end of World War II, he remained a distant and mystical figure.
Now, with the ascendance of his son, Akihito, to the throne, the Japanese imperial institution is moving in a new direction. Akihito, 55, is a man of modern Japan, who was educated and became an adult after the end of the war. He reflects, along with his son, now Crown Prince Hiro, the evolution of the imperial system into a European-style constitutional monarchy.
As is traditional, Emperor Akihito's reign has been given an era name - ``Heisei'' - meaning ``universal peace,'' a name which suggests Japan's new role as a global power. The more worldly and sophisticated monarch appropriately reflects the transformation of an insular nation which has become more attentive and more sensitive to the world around it.
The new Emperor is perhaps a transitional figure. The rituals of court life will not change. But he has already broken tradition in important ways. After the war, he was educated with other boys and was taught for four years by Elizabeth Gray Vining, his American Quaker tutor. In 1959, he married Michiko Shoda, a commoner, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Their storybook romance, which began on a tennis court, thrilled the Japanese, who lined Tokyo streets in the hundreds of thousands, as millions watched on television, to celebrate their marriage.
As Crown Prince, Akihito pushed out the tightly set boundaries of the monarchy. He and his wife traveled frequently and widely around the world. They socialized, including with foreigners, from the tennis court to the ballroom. They have complained that the Imperial Household Agency, which controls court life, is far too zealous in limiting their contacts with ordinary people.
Real change to a more European-style monarchy will probably come with their son, Crown Prince Hiro. He is the first such child to have been brought up in his parents' home (previous future emperors were removed and raised by court officials). Crown Prince Hiro has attended public schools and, unlike his father, has ridden trains and visited department stores. He studied medieval history at England's Oxford University.
But of all the changes brought by Emperor Hirohito's passing, none is more profound than the clear sense that it marks an emotional break between the pre- and post-war eras. The powerful feelings of most Japanese for their late gentle monarch are intimately tied to their memories of the disaster of World War II. His very presence had served to remind all Japanese of that sorrow.
The days since Hirohito's death have been dominated by reflections on Japan's history. The television networks have aired countless hours of rare, previously unseen documentary footage, taking Japanese through detailed examinations of the 62 years of the Emperor's reign.