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In the Passage of One Day There Was A New Calendar, A New Era and A New Emperor of Japan

May 23, 2019

On April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito abdicated his position as the Emperor of Japan yielding to his eldest son, Naruhito, in the first abdication in 200 years. There has been an emperor in Japan for more than 15 centuries making the Chrysanthemum Throne the world's oldest continuous monarchy. Emperor Akihito assumed the throne when his father, Emperor Hirohito, passed in 1989. Akihito is shown below as an adolescent between his mother, younger brother and his father.

The author lived in Japan from 1970 to 1973 when very little was known of Emperor Hirohito and public appearances were as rare as hen's teeth. Hirohito was the 124th Emperor of Japan reigning from December 25, 1926 until his death. He was controversial leading up to his announcement of Japan's surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945 on Japan radio. He was so unknown that there was concern that the people of Japan would not know his voice as most had never heard it. Some historians contend that Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for the atrocities committed by the imperial forces in World War II. 

However, Douglas MacArthur considered Hirohito vital to the demilitarization of Japan and the transformation of the country into a democracy. MacArthur based his position on the fact that the emperor served as a symbol that united all Japanese and his belief that a million American soldiers would be needed to subdue the country if Hirohito were put on trial. A new constitution eliminated the divine status of the emperor and removed all of the governmental responsibilities. Although the Japanese sought to hire an Englishman to tutor Akihito, MacArthur wanted him schooled in American ways and chose a Quaker lady by the name of Mrs. Vining to tutor the young Akihito, shown below riding a bicycle on the palace grounds. 

Mrs. Vining's foremost objective was to remove any thought on the part of Akihito that he was to be revered as a god like his father. Therefore, she gave the children of Japanese nobility and wealth American names in their school at Gakushuin. When she told Akihito his class name was "Jimmy," Akihito responded "No, I am Prince." Mrs. Vining responded "That is your real name. But in class you have an English name and it is Jimmy." Her Quaker-based instruction was not lost as Akihito went on to become a compassionate man and most probably the most caring emperor in 15 centuries.

The history of Japan has been defined by eras which reflect individual periods with a specific calendar for each period. Before the Meiji period from 1868 -1912, era names were changed during an imperial reign to renew public sentiment when the country endured misfortune such as disasters or famines as well as to reflect auspicious events. Following the Meiji period, the eras were changed to reflect the prevailing emperor. The Showa era of Emperor Hirohito has different translations ranging from "enlightened peace" to "radiant Japan." If one reversed the order of those interpretations, it would most likely describe the transition from the war mongering years to the economic success of the post-war era.

Japan's unprecedented economic growth in the period following 1950 was referred to as the "Japanese Miracle," since the economy grew three times faster than other major nations. Moreover, the growth was obtained without foreign capital. The author recalls many scholarly studies regarding the magic of the "Japanese corporate" system which most foreigners on the scene found quite baffling and dysfunctional since their belief was the growth came from inhuman work ethics and personal sacrifice. However, things turned south following an explosion of oil prices and by the mid-1990's the economy entered a period of stagnation and low growth that exists today.

When Akihito, or Jimmy as he is known to a few, became emperor the era was named Heisei, or "Achieving Peace." Emperor Akihito pursued the name of his era with a passion in a compassionate and unprecedented public manner. In fact, at his 10-minute abdication ceremony on April 30, 2019, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, gave a brief formal speech, bowed and stepped off of the podium and then extended his hand to his wife to assist her, which was a first in the history of Japan.

On the first of April, his son, Naruhito became emperor to begin the Reiwa, "Order and Harmony," era. Emperor Naruhito was educated at Oxford and is clearly the most cosmopolitan emperor in the history of the country. When asked his approach to his position, he indicated that he studied under his father and would follow his path. Therefore, we can all hope that he will continue the compassionate approach of his father rather than the more nationalistic campaign of Prime Minister Abe. At his inauguration ceremony, Emperor Naruhito said, "I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation and the peace of the world."

As imperial Japanese eras are believed to telegraph a change in the fortunes and directions of Japan, many Japanese are expectant of an improvement in their lives which in itself provides an economic stimulus. In fact, we can expect an immediate uplift in consumer sales as the run on sake for celebration purposes was exceptional.

Even the announcement of a new era gave everyone a bit of spring in their step in what is a declining growth rate economy with an aging and shrinking population.

April 1 is normally linked to "April Fool's Day" in the United States but it kicked off a wave of weddings in Japan. Let's hope the U.S. tradition does not impact the marriages.

Accordingly, we have entered a new era in the history of Japan with huge optimism on the part of their people. It is special that the era comes with a new calendar to mark the new period. Optimism is the crucial part of any economy so we can expect an uptick in the economic indicators which should put smiles on the faces of the Japanese people.

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