Tuesday Talk - February 26, 2019

When the Emperor of Japan Becomes Emeritus

Speaker: Barbara Ruch, Professor Emerita, Japanese Literature and Cultural History (GSAS)
Ongoing Director, IMJS: Japanese Cultural Heritage Initiatives, Columbia University

Barbara Ruch took a look at what being an Emperor and Empress in Japan entails; the traditions and rituals of poetry, music, and compassion required in maintaining the stability of this imperial line; and modern issues that have emerged as society changes.

In April 2019, in an unprecedented development and to the consternation of the Japanese government, Japan’s most beloved Emperor, Akihito (b.1933-; r.1989-),  after nine years of waiting, was granted his wish to retire from the throne and to cede it to his son, the Crown Prince. The Emperor, who was 86 years old in December of 2019 is the 125th Emperor in the world’s longest uninterrupted monarchy that goes back in verifiable records more than 1500 years (and with named emperors expanding back even into pre-history. A modern “tradition,” begun only in the 20th century, dictates that an emperor’s reign is to end only in death. Emperor Akihito himself succeeded his father, Emperor Hirohito, at the latter’s death in 1989. A captive of new laws surrounding that new tradition, Emperor Akihito shocked the Imperial Household Agency and the government, Prime Minister Abe by informing them he felt incapable of adequately carrying out his onerous duties due to declining health. He did not wish to subject the people of Japan to a morbid wait for him to die nor to have his son accede to the throne in a state of mourning.