Japan’s retired Emperor Akihito, who turns ninety years-old this month, had a clear mission during his three decades on the throne. That was to pray for the souls of those who died in World War II—whatever their nationality—and to keep alive the memories of a tragic conflict fought in his father’s name, so that it would never be repeated.
Akihito’s efforts to fulfill that mission while reaching out to the public with his wife Michiko at his side have made him a much-respected symbol of peace, democracy, and reconciliation with wartime foes. He abdicated in 2019, citing concerns that age and declining health would keep him from fulfilling his royal duties. His heir, Emperor Naruhito, routinely echoes his father’s message. Nevertheless, Akihito’s legacy now confronts a changed world and political climate, raising questions as to how much it resonates with younger generations.
After World War II, Japan’s U.S.-drafted Constitution renounced the right to wage war or maintain armed forces, although the limits of its pacifist Article 9 have been stretched to allow a modern military. Amid recent concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be imitated by China in Taiwan, public support for government policies to double military spending and acquire long-range weapons capable of striking overseas has grown. “There is a changing mood that Japan has to have its own deterrence capability and project its forces from the Japanese shores,” said Columbia University professor emeritus Gerry Curtis. “There is a kind of feeling you need to do it because that’s the way the world is.”
A five-year military build-up program unveiled last December would potentially make Japan the world’s third highest military spender, up from 10th place in 2022. Media surveys show a majority of voters back higher spending—but balk at the notion of higher taxes to pay for it.
Japan’s military already ranks eighth in global fire power. It remains constrained, however, by an increasingly elastic "exclusively defensive" policy. Non-nuclear Japan has long relied on a U.S. extended nuclear deterrent for its ultimate defense.
"For those aged sixty and over, pacifism was based on reflection about what Japan did in World War Two,” said one opposition lawmaker. "For younger generations, the war is a thing of the past and they are becoming more practical." Still, Japanese voters remain wary of military interventions. "Pacificism is on its back heels, but a lot of people are reluctant to get involved in conflicts overseas," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asia Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus.
Those who knew Akihito as emperor have said that—like many Japanese—he was not a strict pacifist who believes people should never fight to protect themselves.
But Akihito has rejected attempts to rewrite the historical narrative to suit modern nationalist purposes. And he has worried that fading memories of World War II would make historical revisionism easier. "With each passing year, we will have more and more Japanese who have never experienced war, but I believe that having thorough knowledge about the last war and deepening our thoughts about the war is most important for the future of Japan," he said in remarks marking his birthday in 2015.
Akihito’s apparent opposition to historical revisionism—never spelled out in so many words given a constitutional ban on imperial political activities—made him the bête noire of ultraconservative Japanese. As monarch, he was often contrasted with Shinzo Abe, the late prime minister of Japan, whose agenda included revising the constitution, bolstering the military, and injecting patriotism into education.
"Emperors should be seen and not heard," an ultraconservative academic told me years ago, after Akihito was quoted saying teachers should not be forced to sing Japan’s national anthem or bow to the national flag. Both the anthem and flag were then being associated by critics with the country’s wartime past.
Akihito also strove to bring the ancient imperial institution closer to the public. This he believed only befitted a modern monarch defined by the Japanese constitution as being a “symbol of the people,” but one without political power.
I had a chance to see both aspects up close as a member of the traveling press corps in 2005, when Akihito and then-Empress Michiko visited the Pacific island of Saipan. In World War II, Saipan witnessed both a huge battle and mass suicides by Japanese soldiers and civilians, who chose death over surrender to U.S. forces.
As captured in a now iconic photo, Akihito in a black suit and Michiko in white, the imperial couple stood, silent and with heads bowed, to offer prayers at the seaside cliff where civilians—including mothers holding infants in their arms—leapt to their deaths as the June 1944 battle drew to a close. I can still recall the windy, hot summer day when I stood nearby with other media observers.
Although Akihito had already made several visits to domestic wartime sites including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only cities to ever suffer atomic bombings, Saipan was his first such pilgrimage overseas. Personnel involved in planning the overseas visit said it was made at the emperor’s personal urging.
Akihito and Michiko also paid their respects at a memorial to Koreans who died in the war. Many Korean laborers were brought to the island against their will during the 1930s when the peninsula was a Japanese colony. Akihito and Michiko paying their respects there was a highly symbolic gesture, given persistent friction between the two Asian countries over their shared colonial and wartime past.
Later on during the same trip, Akihito and Michiko met elderly veterans and relatives of those who had died, greeting them one by one in a small hall while reporters stood nearby. The royal couple stood listening intently to each person before moving on, a process that clearly took longer than clock-watching bureaucrats in charge of the imperial schedule had planned.
It was another example of the imperial couple’s practice of showing empathy with ordinary people, whether victims of war or natural disasters, or marginalized groups such as suffers of Hansen’s Disease, the elderly, and the disabled.
Akihito’s early years on the throne coincided with an emerging debate over Japan’s responsibility for World War II. During those years, there was a series of government apologies including the landmark Murayama Statement by then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995. The apologies sparked a conservative backlash against a “masochistic”view of history, seen as undermining national pride, national identity, and Japanese traditions.
Akihito became the first modern Japanese emperor to visit China, where he expressed “deep sorrow” for the suffering Japan had inflicted on the Chinese people. And he continued his visits to wartime battlefields to pray for the dead in the later years of his reign. On the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, he expressed “deep remorse”over the war. The nuanced remark was seen by many as a subtle rebuke to then-premier Abe, who a day earlier had expressed “utmost grief” over wartime suffering, but who had added that future generations should not have to keep apologizing for the same.
Akihito’s message resonated with a generation of Japanese who, like him, experienced the war and its tragic aftermath. “I grew up without knowing a time when a war wasn’t being fought,” Akihito once remarked. He was eleven when the war ended. Having been evacuated to a rural area during the war, he returned to a Tokyo devastated by U.S. firebombing.
Akihito and Michiko have largely faded from public view since he stepped down as emperor, partly due to health problems and the COVID-19 pandemic, and partly to clear the stage for Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. The retired royals spend most days reading, watching TV and taking strolls in their garden. Akihito is likely to spend his December 23 birthday with family and officials, though it may be a larger gathering than in recent years given eased concerns about Covid 19 and the fact that turning ninety is a traditional life milestone.
“They are trying to fade out, not make comments and live quietly,” said a veteran Japanese journalist who has long covered the imperial family. “The premise is that there can only be one emperor.”
Oxford-educated Naruhito, now 63 and the first Japanese monarch to be born after World War II, has repeated his father’s “deep remorse” over the war and stressed the need to convey the facts about that conflict to younger generations. Such remarks, however, may not carry the same clout as Akihito’s words and actions. What form Naruhito’s “imperial diplomacy” will take also remains to be seen.
Naruhito made his second overseas visit in June to Indonesia after attending Queen Elizabeth's funeral in September 2022. During their stay, he and Masako laid flowers at a cemetery honoring those who fought for independence after Japan's 1942-1945 occupation of the former Dutch colony, including twenty-eight former Japanese soldiers.
Naruhito told a news conference ahead of the trip that his “heart hurt” when he thought of the suffering caused by the war, and that it was “important to deepen our understanding of history without forgetting those who passed.” He also said that working with developing countries was key to resolving global issues such as climate change—a topic likely to be a priority for him going forward.
Said the Japanese journalist: "The current emperor and empress are seeking their own style."
Linda Sieg has a Ph.D. in Japanese history from Temple University and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. She covered Japanese politics, the economy, and social issues at Reuters in Tokyo for more than three decades, most recently as chief political correspondent, and is currently freelancing from Tokyo.
Image: Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visiting the Richmond Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C., Canada on July 10, 2009. (Wikimedia Commons: Shawnc)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe