In Japan, an Emperor Constrained by History and a National Identity Crisis

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tags: Japan, Emperor Akihito

The hint by Emperor Akihito of Japan that he would like to abdicate challenges something bigger than the laws requiring him to serve until his death and questions over succession.

Emperor Akihito was also grappling, as he has since his reign began in 1989, with a problem that has defined his office throughout Japan’s post-World War II era. The emperor is meant to bridge, and yet often embodies, the contradiction between two national identities: a pacifist democracy that officially rejects the imperial past, and a lingering sense of identity that is tied to that past.

His televised address on Monday reflected this paradox. The modern emperorship was designed, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to be the centerpiece of Japan’s imperial ideology. That ideology, which culminated in wartime atrocities, required a godlike emperor who could be worshiped as the literal embodiment of the nation. Today’s law against abdication is a legacy of this divine status — how could a deity ever resign?

Read entire article at NYT

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