Emperor Hirohito of Japan, properly known as Emperor Showa, died in 1989. His successor, Emperor Akihito, is abdicating the Chrysanthemum Throne today, so as of tomorrow, May 1, Japan will have its third Emperor in thirty-one years.
The Last Day of Showa
Emperor Showa died at 6:33 a.m. on January 7, 1989. I remember that morning well, for I was scheduled that morning to give the final paper at the Hayama Missionary Seminar, an interdenominational gathering of missionaries to Japan. The theme of that conference was “Showa, X-Day, and Beyond.”
“Showa” was the name of the era that started when Hirohito became emperor in 1926. So, in Japan I would sometimes give my birth year as Showa 13, and we would sometimes have to indicate that we arrived in Japan for the first time in Showa 41. New Year’s Day in 1989 was the beginning of Showa 64, the longest era in Japanese history.
“X-Day” was the Japanese circumlocution for the day Emperor Hirohito would die--and since he turned 87 years old in 1988 and was not in good health, throughout the last part of that year, X-Day was expected at any time.
It was sobering to present my paper just three hours or so after the Emperor’s death. The title of my paper was “Beyond Showa: Christianity and Japanese Religions.” (A PDF of the entire booklet of that 1989 Hayama Conference papers can be found here.)
A deep concern of Christians in Japan at that time was the possible impact all the Shinto-related enthronement ceremonies might have on Christianity during that year and in the years to come. For good reason, given its close ties to the Pacific War (1941~45), most Japanese Christians were quite critical of the imperial system of Japan--and that is still true now.
The day after the Showa Era ended, the new era, called Heisei, began on January 8, 1989. And now, today (April 30), that era comes to an end.
The Last Day of Heisei
The era names in Japan all are composed of two kanji (Chinese characters). 昭和 (Showa) is generally said to mean “enlightened peace (or harmony).”
平成 (Heisei) means “achieving peace”--and it seemed to be a fitting era name for Japan, which had certainly been a peace-loving, peace-seeking nation since the end of World War II. (The most common Japanese word for peace is 平和、heiwa.).
The new era which begins tomorrow (on May 1) is Reiwa (the kanji is shown in the picture on the right), which is now commonly said to mean “beautiful harmony.” According to Prime Minister Abe, the new name conveys a meaning that “culture is born and nurtured when people’s hearts empathize with each other beautifully.”
Although the “Western calendar” is also used in Japan, the era name is still a part of daily life there, used on coins, drivers' licenses, and official paperwork.
The Ongoing Opposition
Everyone in Japan, however, is not satisfied with the ceremonies surrounding the enthronement of the new emperor. As in 1988-89, many Christians oppose those activities because they are so closely tied to the Shinto religion--and to Japanese exceptionalism.
What in this country is generally called the separation of church and state is also acknowledged in the current (since 1947) Constitution of Japan. But tomorrow’s activities, and those scheduled for October 22, seem to be blatant violations of that principle.Perhaps even more than in 1989, the enthronement ceremonies for the new emperor may well stir nationalistic (Make Japan Great Again!) sentiment in Japan--and that is the underlying reason for the ongoing opposition to the imperial system and the enthronement ceremonies tomorrow for Emperor Naruhito.