The Straits Times says

Monarchy that kept up with the times

Emperor Akihito, who abdicates today after a 30-year reign, will leave a legacy of a Japanese monarchy that is more in step with the times. It was his father Emperor Hirohito who repudiated the demigod status of the emperor at the end of World War II. But it was Emperor Akihito who broke boundaries including being the first modern-day heir to the throne to marry a commoner. He was to shock Japan's conservatives further by expressing in 2016 the desire to abdicate so that his work could be continued without break by someone younger and more energetic. This work is modernising the monarchy to bring it closer to the people and their needs. Together with Empress Michiko, he would visit victims of disasters and people in retirement homes and care centres for the handicapped. As he said on his 84th birthday: "I have considered that the first and foremost duty of the emperor is to pray for peace and happiness of all the people. At the same time, I also believe that in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices and be close to them in their thoughts."

For Japan's neighbours, however, it is his efforts to heal the scars of war and to foster reconciliation for which he will be remembered. He became the first Japanese emperor to visit China in modern times. There he expressed "deep sorrow" for the suffering Japan inflicted on the Chinese people in a war that lasted from 1937 to 1945. He visited battlefields where Japanese and American soldiers fought fierce battles offering prayers to all the fallen. To some he is more committed to reconciliation with Japan's neighbours than most Japanese prime ministers of his era. An editorial in the China Daily called him Japan's "conscience keeper". Indeed, on his 85th birthday last December, his last as emperor, he urged that the younger generations of Japan be taught accurately the history of World War II, including that countless lives were lost in the war.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2019, with the headline 'Monarchy that kept up with the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe