A New Era for Japan: Shōwa to Heisei to the Future

The Comfort of Words: The Emperor and the National Memorial Service for the War Dead


This summer Emperor Akihito spoke at the annual National Memorial Service for the War Dead in his last appearance there before his abdication at the end of April next year. Journalist Saitō Katsuhisa reflects on the importance of the ceremony and the last appearance of Emperor Shōwa three decades before.

A Significant Public Function

One of the most important public functions performed by Emperor Akihito, and previously his father Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito), as a symbol of the state is attendance at the National Memorial Service for the War Dead.(*1) Japan suffered 3.1 million casualties during World War II, including 2.3 million people in or connected to the military forces and 800,000 civilians. At the ceremony, the emperor offers a silent prayer with the relatives of the dead and gives a speech mourning the dead and expressing the desire for peace. Noon on August 15 is a special time for Japan, when citizens can tune in to see Emperor Akihito together with Empress Michiko and hear him speak.

This year’s ceremony, marking the seventy-third anniversary of the end of the war, had its own particular significance. It was the last time Emperor Akihito, now 84, would perform his accustomed role before his abdication in 2019. Since acceding to the throne in 1989, he has attended every year with Empress Michiko, and this was their thirtieth appearance. Both were evacuated from the capital as elementary school students and their generation’s experience of war has given their prayers for peace the strength of those feelings. They have also made many visits both in and out of Japan to remember and mourn the war dead.

Although Emperor Akihito reuses many of the words from his father’s speech in each year’s ceremony, he has incorporated occasional changes, as on the fiftieth and seventieth anniversaries. In his additions, he says, “reflecting on our past . . . I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” and he expresses “feelings of deep remorse” over World War II.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the National Memorial Service for the War Dead in Tokyo on August 15, 2018. (© Jiji)

Long-Lasting Peace

In 2018, in a final gathering of thoughts, the emperor added the phrase, “Looking back on the long period of postwar peace.” He wanted to draw attention to those 73 years, which have effectively been a period without war for Japan. However, long-lasting peace is not easily achieved.

Last year, North Korea fired ballistic missiles over Japan and into its territorial waters. This brought tensions to their highest point during the reign of Emperor Akihito. Although the worst appears to be past regarding North Korean aggression, there is still the possibility that Japan may become embroiled in disputes with other countries in the future. The emperor’s short speech, with its wish that “the ravages of war will never be repeated,” remains a weighty one.

Supporting Each Other

Empress Michiko’s readiness to support and advise the emperor was also conveyed by her close attendance at the ceremony. Since Emperor Akihito underwent heart surgery six years ago, she has worn traditional Japanese wafuku at the ceremony rather than Western clothes and shoes. Straw zōri sandals would make it easier for her to help him if, for example, he lost his balance. Although the emperor seemed confused about the order of his speech three years ago, this did not affect the ceremony itself. At every event, including the most recent, the successful completion of the solemn ritual has been due to the mutual support of the two as they grow old together.

Before their prayer and after the emperor’s speech, the imperial couple looked for a while at the memorial pillar engraved with the phrase “Souls of the Nation’s War Dead.” Then, when they left the venue, they bowed several times and said some words of farewell to the more than 5,000 audience members who were relatives of those killed. These members applauded them in turn for their attendance and long years of consideration of the fallen.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko bow at the ceremony. (© Jiji)

Emperor Shōwa’s Final Memorial Service

As I watched the slow progress of the emperor, I recalled the last memorial service attended by Emperor Shōwa, three decades earlier in 1988. Perhaps the emperor’s deliberate steps resembled somewhat those of his father. Emperor Shōwa was 87 at the time, and had had surgery for a partially blocked intestine the previous year. He had lost some 7 kilograms following the operation, leaving his weight at around 50 kilograms, so his physical deterioration was clear. Some at the Imperial Household Agency considered that it might be best for him not to attend, but the emperor himself was determined to do so.

To reduce the physical burden, the emperor traveled to the capital in a government helicopter from Nasu Villa in Tochigi Prefecture, where he had been recuperating that summer. In contrast to this year’s extreme heat, the last summer of the Shōwa era was a cool and rainy one. Plans to return to Tokyo on August 12 were postponed due to heavy downpours, and the emperor arrived one day later. In the evening of August 14, Emperor Shōwa was in the first-floor study of his main Fukiage Palace residence within the Imperial Palace, practicing the following day’s speech. Although he had spoken the words at the ceremony on dozens of occasions, he repeated them until he was satisfied.

Emperor Shōwa steps from a helicopter that conveyed him from his retreat in Tochigi Prefecture to Tokyo on August 13, 1988. (© Jiji)

On the day itself, he took his seat on the stage at the Nippon Budōkan in Tokyo at six minutes before noon. As he made his way to the memorial pillar to perform his silent prayer, his footsteps were careful and heavy, so he was late to reach the assigned position and was still in the middle of the stage as it reached noon. When he arrived at the pillar he began the prayer together with the audience of 6,400 relatives of victims. His body shook greatly three times during what felt like a very long minute. For the first time, he was not standing alone; the grand chamberlain of the IHA was beside him in case he should be needed.

A Ceremony of the Utmost Importance

“My heart still aches when I think of all those who lost their lives in the war, both on the battlefields and elsewhere, and their surviving relatives. Together with all of our people, I pay my heartfelt tribute to them, and pray for world peace and for the continuing development of our country.” The emperor’s speech displayed his regret at being unable to avoid a conflict that had killed so many. His words vowing anew to renounce war were almost the same each year, but they comforted many citizens and relatives, making them feel how precious peace is.

Emperor Shōwa speaks at the National Memorial Service for the War Dead in Tokyo on August 15, 1988. (© Jiji)

Emperor Shōwa himself must have been aware of how sick he was. Yet he believed that whatever happened, it was his duty to speak directly to the people on August 15—just as he did on that date in the famous gyokuon hōsō broadcast of 1945, when he first addressed Japanese citizens to tell them the war was over. I was greatly moved thinking of this as I watched the emperor leaving the Budōkan.

This was the last time Emperor Shōwa appeared before the Japanese public. A month later, he coughed up blood and collapsed. He had staked his life on making an appearance at his last National Memorial Service for the War Dead, a ceremony of the utmost importance to him.

A New Generation

Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako will attend next year’s ceremony as emperor and empress. They are part of a generation with no experience of war, which will bring some major challenges for the symbolic role. Like the present imperial couple, however, the two will seek their own proper role together through the years, growing into the part. It is my wish that they can memorialize the end of World War II for a new era.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 10, 2018. Banner photo: Emperor Akihito speaks at the National Memorial Service for the War Dead in Tokyo on August 15, 2018. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ In addition to kokuji kōi (acts in matters of state), as specified in the Japanese Constitution, the emperor performs kōteki kōi (public functions) as a symbol of the state. Unlike with matters of state, there is no need for advice and approval from the cabinet to carry these out.

emperor imperial family