I have been very moved by watching the abdication of Emperor Akihito this week. The media coverage has reminded us of his deep commitment to peace.
However, I’m wondering if it’s appropriate to call him a “pacifist” – a word which appeared in many foreign correspondents’ reports, including one by the BBC’s Laura Bicker, who said: “As pacifists, the Emperor and his wife have travelled the world to help heal Japan’s wartime reputation.”
Expression of remorse
This refers to the way in which the Emperor has expressed deep remorse for Japan’s invasion and occupation of parts of Asia. This was acknowledged by the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who each praised the Emperor for his peacemaking efforts.
Indeed, the Emperor’s final words before he abdicated this week were: “I pray for peace around the world.”
But is praying for peace a pacifist thing to do?
What is pacifism?
Pacifism covers a spectrum of views. For some it means the total rejection of all violence. For others, it means an impassioned quest to resolve disputes peacefully.
The religious organisation the Quakers puts it his way: “Pacifism is not simply the refusal to fight: it includes working actively to bring about or preserve peace, by removing the causes of conflict.”
Japan has a constitution which is pacifist in spirit. It was drawn up by the Americans after the Second World War and bans Japan from ever again amassing an army which could launch an attack like the one on Pearl Harbour.
Ever since, there has been a great deal of compromise. Japan now has a large and well-armed Self Defence Force.
Furthermore, the United States has a duty to defend Japan if it is attacked and could even use nuclear weapons in the event of war.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would like to revise the constitution but time is running to do that out before he retires in 2021.
In the view of NPR reporter Anthony Kuhn: “Akihito’s pacifist views are believed to have created simmering, if unspoken, tensions with a government that has tacked to the political right and wants to cast off postwar restraints on its military, government and monarchy.”
The NPR piece also quotes a political scientist named Koichi Nakano from Sophia University in Tokyo who says: “Akihito has in some ways become a surprising sort of democrat, a surprising pacifist, who is not necessarily feeling comfortable with the government of the day and that sort of mistrust is mutual.”
In Professor Nakano’s view, Prime Minister Abe would like to upgrade the emperor to head of state rather than a symbol of the state.
That nuanced debate about the role of the Emperor will no doubt continue into the next generation. Emperor Naruhito did not touch on it in his inaugural speech. “[Akihito] showed profound compassion through his own bearing,” he said.
“I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by the Emperor Emeritus … and fulfil my responsibility as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan.”