Japan’s Reiwa, or “Beautiful Harmony” era, which got under way with the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito on May 1, may become unattractively contentious: It could become a covert war between the new emperor and the Shinzo Abe government over the constitution itself.

May 3, the third day of Reiwa, was Constitution Memorial Day, a national holiday in Japan, and this year, the day had more significance than ever. It celebrates the promulgation of the 1947 Peace Constitution of Japan, which both the new emperor and his father Akihito swore to protect. However, it is something Prime Minister Abe and his political base are working to dismantle. If Abe cannot change the constitution, he wants to remove from it such pillars as “popular sovereignty, basic human rights, and pacifism.”

The current situation pits the grandson of the late Hirohito, the wartime emperor who repented of militarism and embraced peace against the grandson of the wartime minister of munitions, Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi, an unrepentant nationalist and conflict profiteer, was arrested as a war criminal after World War II but was not tried and returned to power as prime minister.

Kishi worked unsuccessfully to unravel a constitution that was drafted under the  US occupation, and which some historians assert Hirohito had a role in crafting, especially Article 9 – which renounces war. Kishi’s grandson has now taken up the baton.

Study in contrasts

The current prime minister and the new emperor are very different men.

Naruhito is well educated, bilingual, an environmentalist, an even-tempered individual and – in his own way – a man of the people, who has pledged to uphold Japan’s constitution. He radiates sincerity and honesty.

Abe was never the brightest student, speaks only passable English, is supportive of the nuclear industry and is seen as an elitist. He has reportedly used his power to benefit cronies, and has overseen various scandals.

As of January this year, four out of five Japanese people no longer believed government statistics. While 80% of the population admire the emperor for his candor and idealism, Abe’s support ratings are roughly half that.

Over the years, Naruhito, following in his father’s footsteps, has touched on the horrors of war and the importance of peace, and expressed regret for Japan’s imperial past. Abe is a historical revisionist who speaks often about “escaping from the postwar regime” and is a self-professed fan of the kamikaze-glorifying novel and movie, Eternal Zero. 

In fact, Abe appointed the author of the book, Naoki Hyakuta, to a position overseeing Japanese broadcaster NHK. Subsequently, Hyakuta shocked the world by denying the Rape of Nanking, when Japanese troops went on an atrocious spree of rape and murder.

Abe has complicated reasons for seeking constitutional change.

He washed out during his first term as prime minister in 2006-2007, amid numerous scandals. What brought him back to power in 2012 was the backing of Shinto-based conservative lobby Nippon Kaigi. Nippon Kaigi believes the Imperial Constitution should be restored, the emperor made a god again, and liberal Western notions like gender equality excised.

The predecessor to Nippon Kaigi was behind the populist movement to make imperial-era names mandated by law (alongside the Western calendar) in 1979. Only 33% of the population uses the imperial calendar in daily life, but the government must use the imperial-era names in documents.

Anti-imperial emperors

According to veteran royal affairs journalist Yukiya Chikashige, writing in the book From Heisei to Reiwa, the previous emperor, Akihito, was profoundly affected by the war. He had been sequestered away from the fighting, but upon returning to Tokyo via train, was horrified to witness the burned-out city in front of him. He never forgot that shock and vowed to ensure that Japan never suffered the horrors of war again.

“Even when we can’t see him, the emperor has always prayed with all his heart, for peace and happiness for all the people in Japan,” Chikashige writes. “And wherever there has been a disaster, he and his wife have gone to comfort the people.”

Akihito’s visits to disaster sites forged a new path for the imperial family. The emperor and his wife visited Fukushima in 2012, after the nuclear disaster, where they not only greeted officials, but also spoke to the clean-up crews, despite the risk of radiation exposure.

And from day one, Akhito distinguished himself as a promoter of peace and a supporter of Japan’s constitution. When taking his ascension vows in 1989, he promised: “I will protect the constitution, and in accordance with it, carry out my duties.”

On his 80th birthday, when the former emperor was asked about his special memories, he replied: “I was in my last year of elementary school when the war ended. About 3.1 million Japanese people lost their lives in that war. It still pains me deeply to think that so many people, who must have had various dreams and hopes for the future, lost their lives at a young age.”

He continued: “After the war, Japan was occupied by the Allied forces, and based on peace and democracy as values to be upheld, established the constitution of Japan, undertook various reforms and built the foundation of Japan that we know today … we must not forget the help extended to us … by Americans with an understanding of Japan and Japanese culture.”

Historians are divided on the role Akihito’s father Hirohito played in the war, but records do suggest that he embraced the idea of a pacifist Japan in his lifetime. Diaries of his close friends and his own private journals show a man who agonized over the suffering caused by Japanese colonialism, and who expressed sorrow for the Japanese who died in the war.

Hirohito’s beliefs were made crystal clear in 1979. After it became known that the Yasukuni Shrine had secretly enshrined class A war criminals among the spirits honored there, Hirohito refused to visit. No emperor has been since.

Ascension speech struggle

When Naruhito ascended the throne on May 1, he expressed his gratitude to his father and mother, and made clear his desire to follow in their footsteps. However, his speech was remarkably short and restrained.

Reporters assigned to the imperial household beat told Asia Times that there was conflict between Abe and Naruhito over the content of the speech. Abe reportedly met with Akihito three times before the ascension – on February 22, March 29 and April 8.

In the end, Naruhito did not use the exact phrasing of his father in his vows. But he did mention the constitution twice. And his final words transcended Japan’s borders.

“I also swear that I will act according to the constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them,” he said. “I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world.”

An irony has therefore been emplaced at the heart of the Japanese polity.

Japan’s right-wingers are among the most passionate supporters of the institution of the imperial family, but at a time when Abe and his conservatives seek constitutional change and a broader role for an empowered armed forces, they may find themselves at odds with the opinions of the man who actually sits upon the throne.