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Nikkei Editorial

Japan's new emperor puts his imprimatur on diversity

The problem of a shrinking royal family requires immediate attention

Emperor Naruhito waves to well-wishers as he enters the Imperial Palace, in Tokyo, on May 1. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Perfectly timed with the emergence of fresh green leaves in Japan, the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito and start of the new Imperial era Reiwa have created a festive mood across the country.

The succession of the Chrysanthemum Throne through the first Imperial abdication since 1817 offers a good opportunity for the Japanese people to reflect on their ideals when it comes to what they expect from the emperor and the Imperial family.

While Japan's constitution designates the emperor as "the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people," exactly how the new emperor is to carry out that role is less clear.

The new emperor pledged to “always think of the people and work on improving myself, to be by the people and comply with the constitution to fulfill my mission as the symbol of the nation and the unity of the Japanese people.”

He also expressed his hope for “the happiness of the people, a more prosperous nation and world peace.”

Emperor Emeritus Akihito, Naruhito's father, pursued his ideal version of the emperor over his more than three decades on the throne, and devoted himself to carrying out that role together with Empress Emerita Michiko.

Whenever major disasters struck, the Imperial couple would visit the affected areas, taking time to console the victims and extend their sympathy. They also visited the sites of terrible wartime battles, hoping to prevent memories of World War II from fading into the past. Naruhito is thought to be ready to follow in his parents' footsteps in this regard.

The new emperor closely follows environmental issues and natural disasters, likely stemming from his interest in water issues as a result of years of studying the history of water transport, including at Oxford University. The new emperor said he will use his background in this area to think of ways to improve people's lives and promote the importance of disaster prevention. In this sense, he is expected to expand on the role of the symbol of the state.

Naruhito has said the Heisei era, which preceded Reiwa, was a period in which the dramatic development of information technology sparked a diversification of lifestyles. He has also said it is important for everyone to accept that diversity with an open mind and help each other to grow.

People in Japan and elsewhere will be closely watching to see how the specific issues the new emperor has discussed will be reflected in the duties he will perform together with Empress Masako.

While Naruhito is the focus of growing expectations as the symbol of a new era, the Imperial family also faces several impending problems, not least of which is how to maintain a stable line of succession when it is shrinking.

The ascension of Emperor Naruhito has left only three heirs to the throne -- Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor's 53-year-old brother; Prince Hisahito, Akishino's 12-year-old son; and Prince Hitachi, Akihito's 83-year-old brother. Sooner or later, the matter of succession will be fraught with difficulties.

When unmarried female members of the royal family finish school, they assume senior posts at social welfare, athletic, international exchange and other organizations to support popular activities in various fields. There are currently six such individuals, including Aiko -- the sole child of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako -- who is still in high school. But they lose their Imperial status when they marry.

In 2005, the government of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi set up a panel of legal, academic and other experts to study this issue, out of concern that the succession of the throne would become difficult due to the scarcity of young male members of the Imperial family.

Based on the panel’s report all those years ago, the current government should advance discussions on the matter and solicit opinions from a broad cross section of the public.

Given the mountain of challenges at home and abroad in the age of Reiwa, expectations about what the emperor's duties as a symbol should be and what activities members of the Imperial family should engage in will only become larger and more diverse. There are doubtless a great many Japanese who hope that the Imperial court will flexibly cope with social changes while respecting the long history and traditions of the royal family.

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