Japan’s Emperor Akihito is the man. Not only because he and the Empress look like the most friendly, adorable old people to ever walk the planet, but also because he’s a bit of a trailblazer.
You might not believe it from his harmless appearance, but during his lifetime Emperor Akihito has done a ton of unprecedented things for an Emperor, and a lot of these things have also riled up far right-wing Japanese conservatives. What is it that Akihito does that upsets Japanese nationalists?
Married Outside The Royal Family
Even before Akihito was emperor, he was shaking things up. In his 20s, he met a woman while playing tennis. Akihito and the woman, Michiko Shoda, married not long after. Sounds like a pretty typical love story, right?
A young Akihito and Michiko
Here’s the thing: Empress Michiko was the first ever commoner to marry into the imperial family. Up until then, the imperial family only married other royals. Even though Michiko was the daughter of a rich industrialist, she was still not of the usual pedigree.
Acknowledged Korean Ancestors
East Asia has always had a very interconnected history. Even going way back hundreds and hundreds of years, China, Korea, and Japan have always shared culture, language, and history.
Nonetheless given Japan and Korea’s tumultuous past, it’s sometimes a bit taboo to acknowledge Korea’s influence on Japanese culture. That’s why it was a big deal during a 2001 press conference, Akihito acknowledged that the Japanese imperial line had Korean blood in it.
On its face, Akihito’s recognition of his Korean ancestors might not seem like a huge deal, but it was the first time in hundreds of years that a member of the imperial family had done so.
Requests To Be Cremated
Akihito’s has been breaking the status quo as recently as last week. At 78 and experiencing health problems, Akihito has made a controversial request: to be cremated upon his death.
For about 400 years now, all Japanese emperors have been buried in giant tombs. Akihito’s father, the Showa Emperor, is buried in a giant tomb in Tokyo. But Akihito is bucking the trend and asking, like most Japanese people, to be cremated upon his death.
The tomb where Akihito’s father, Hirohito, is buried.
The vast majority of all Japanese people are cremated, somewhere close to 99%. Cremation is more clean and efficient than burial, and preferred by many Japanese. Some local governments even ban burials! The only exceptions are people with religious objections, such as Muslims. Oh, and emperors.
Not only is Akihito the first emperor in half a millennium to be cremated but, being the sweet old man that he is, he wants to share a grave site with his wife. Emperors and empresses are typically buried in separate grave sites, but Akihito wants to remain with his wife in death.
Why Japanese Conservatives Are Pissed Off
The areas where Akihito has broken new ground goes on and on. His language is much more colloquial language than any of his predecessors, and he’s been a very public figure, visiting earthquake and tsunami victims in a somewhat casual manner.
But why does all of this upset Japanese conservatives?
Far right-wing Japanese nationalists, when they’re not aggravating the rest of east Asia, have always used the emperor as a symbol of their movement and legitimacy. The emperor has always been the shining example of Japanese tradition and everything that is Japan (see: pre-WW2 Japan).
But the more Akihito distances himself from tradition, the less effectively Japanese nationalists can leverage him as a symbol of their ideology. How can the emperor be a figure of Japanese tradition if he’s going against tradition every chance he gets?
It’s not that Akihito is necessarily doing these things just to upset Japanese nationalists, but it’s an entertaining side effect regardless. Akihito has largely chosen to walk his own path in a time of change, and I really respect him for that.
Header image: Wikipedia.