How Do Japanese Youth See the Imperial Household?

Society Imperial Family

In March, we visited three Tokyo locations to ask 30 young people what they think about the imperial household.

Impressions of the Imperial Household

In the postwar Constitution, Japan’s emperor was designated as a symbol of the nation, and the recently retired Emperor Emeritus Akihito in particular emphasized his status as a symbol when performing his official duties. How do today’s youth, who were born during the Heisei era (1989–2019), feel about the emperor and the imperial household?

In March, we visited three locations in Tokyo—Yasukuni Shrine, Shibuya’s shopping hub, and the University of Tokyo—to ask 30 young people their opinions. First we asked for general impressions of the imperial household.

A cheery 19-year-old university student from Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, visiting Yasukuni Shrine with her friend, noted that “after the Great East Japan Earthquake and other major disasters, the emperor and empress visited the affected areas, kneeling on the floor in evacuation centers, at eye-level with evacuees. They were chatting with them like a friendly old couple.”

Observations from other interviewees included that the royals “seem gentle when they wave,” “stand back but keep watch over Japan,” and “are always working for the country.” Many young people seem to feel a sense of closeness to the imperial family.

However, six respondents said that they felt the imperial household’s existence is removed from regular people’s lives. “When they are showing support for disaster victims, they seem close, but otherwise, they lead a distant, exalted life,” “They have a higher social status,” and “They project an image of refinement.” Six people described the imperial household as a “symbol.”

An 18-year-old high school student visiting the shrine from Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture claimed that “the emperor is a symbol of the nation. Some people claim that we don’t need the imperial system, but it is precisely because of the emperor that we can talk about Japan’s history, so I’m sad to hear them say this.”

Most Favorable Toward Abdication

We next asked, “Have you ever felt grateful for Japan’s imperial system?” to which 12 responded “yes” and 18 answered “no.” However, no one expressed negative views.

One person who responded positively—a 19-year-old university student living in Mitaka, Tokyo—said he felt that “having an emperor makes it easier for the country to unite. Having someone as a focus for our affection and our identity makes it easier to bring the nation together.” A high school student from Adachi, Tokyo, whom we interviewed in Shibuya replied that “it’s better that we have the system because it has helped us to preserve the country’s peace.”

Outside the famous Akamon (Red Gate) entrance to the University of Tokyo, an 18-year-old high school student from Nerima, Tokyo, told us that whenever her grandparents saw Emperor Emeritus Akihito on television, they would say “The emperor is doing his best, so we must try hard too.” She said she was happy that the royals inspired them.

Most responses to our question “What recent news about the imperial household left the deepest impression on you?” concerned the abdication (15 responses) or the new era name (3 responses). Six interviewees mentioned the controversy surrounding the upcoming marriage between Emperor Naruhito’s niece, Princess Mako, and Komuro Kei, frequently discussed in tabloid magazines and television.

Abdication was a hot topic of discussion among politicians and experts, because there is no convention for it under the Imperial House Law. How do young people view this?

Of the 30 young people we interviewed, 26 supported the abdication for various reasons, including that they “would like to respect his wishes,” that “his health is a concern due to his age,” and “we all retire when we get old.” The other four were neither for nor against, and nobody expressed opposition. 

A postgraduate student (24), visiting the University of Tokyo for a seminar, explained his thoughts thus.

“Historically speaking, abdication of the emperor is not unusual and there is no reason to oppose it, so if it is his wish to abdicate, I support it. Emperor Akihito fell in love with and then married Empress Michiko at a time when arranged marriages were standard. Michiko broke the long tradition of marriage within the royal family or aristocracy. The emperor, with his modern approach, has symbolized the changing face of Japan. For these reasons, I feel comfortable with his abdication. Although he has moved with the times, the imperial system has not, and this contrast was bound to lead to some issues.”

None Want to End Imperial System

Most respondents held a positive image of the imperial household and the abdication, but what of their views regarding the future? Of the 30 interviewed, 27 said that the imperial system should be retained, none supported its elimination, and the other 3 were undecided. However, the first group can be broken down into three types: proactive supporters, those who approve, and those who were ambivalent.

Proactive supporters opined that “Having an emperor is a Japanese tradition and the imperial household has an important presence for Japanese people” or that “society is stable thanks to the imperial system. It should be retained because it makes life easier.” Comments from those in the approver group included: “It doesn’t make sense for people today to eliminate something that continued for this long,” and “We don’t have anything that could replace it. If it was suddenly eliminated, the country would fall into chaos.” Many interviewees in Shibuya gave vaguer responses: “So long as it’s peaceful,” “There’s nothing really wrong with it,” and “It’s probably better to keep it.”

A high school student (17) from Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, who was at Yasukuni Shrine, gave a considered response.

“A symbolic emperor doesn’t have any authority in national politics, which is very good, because when he makes official visits overseas, he can simply work to deepen goodwill. However, I’ve also heard that a lot of tax revenues go toward imperial household expenses, for living costs and official duties, and I think some things could be done a little better there.”

Few Knew the New Emperor’s Name

How much do young people know about the imperial household? When asked (before the abdication) the name of the current emperor, only four correctly answered “Akihito,” while seven could name the empress, Michiko. Regarding the new emperor, only two knew that his name is Naruhito.

Surprisingly, in comparison, 10 respondents knew that the next in line to the throne is Fumihito, Prince Akishino. Only two interviewees answered all four of our questions correctly: the postgraduate student we met outside University of Tokyo, and an 18-year-old engineering college student from Fuji City in Shizuoka Prefecture who was at Yasukuni Shrine.

Our question “What does the Heisei era mean to you?” elicited diverse answers. Many mentioned technological advances, such as the development of the smartphone. Some had a positive view of Heisei as a peaceful era, for example: “It means a lot to me, because it’s the era when I was born and grew up” and “It’s been a good, peaceful era.”

However, a number, including particularly those we interviewed outside the University of Tokyo, cited negative aspects: “It was an era of recession,” “a time when we’ve borne the burden of the pension system and other blunders of the older generation,” “a depressing era,” and “we’ve seen 20 years wasted.” Others mentioned that “there was much environmental destruction” and “we experienced major earthquakes.” The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and other disasters left a deep impression.

A company employee (27) visiting Yasukuni Shrine from Daitō City, Osaka Prefecture, said that “the Heisei era seems to have come and gone so quickly.” The postgraduate student was more reserved in his summation of the era, “I won’t be able to say until some time has passed after the end of Heisei.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Sugihara Yuka of Power News. Banner photo: Young people pose in t-shirts featuring calligraphy of the new imperial era, at an outdoor event held in Shibuya, Tokyo, on April 1, 2019 to mark the era name announcement. © Jiji.)

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