Last week, Bruce Miller AO, Australia’s former Ambassador to Japan delivered our Perspectives: Asia seminar reflecting on Japan’s recent imperial transition, and the significance of the shift from the Heisei to to Reiwa era for contemporary Japan. There is much to be gleaned from this speech about the nature of contemporary Japanese society, Japan’s regional aspirations and indeed prospects for strengthening Australia’s relationship with Japan into the future. With Bruce’s permission we are delighted to share it here. 

I begin by congratulating the Griffith Asia Institute for the top class contribution it makes to understanding Asia. And I thank the Centre for the invitation to speak this evening on the transition in Japan from Heisei to Reiwa.

I acknowledge also Consul-General Tanaka, whom I have known for 25 years. I offer observations on the imperial transition and on contemporary Japan. I will do
this in two halves. I will first speak about the imperial institution and its role, both in historical context and in the context of Japan’s post-war constitutional traditions. I then speak more broadly about the likely direction of Japan in the new era. I will also, if we have time, make some comments on the Australia Japan relationship.

I do so from the perspective of someone, thanks to the positions I’ve held, has had a 41 year association with Japan, lived there for 16 years, and developed what I would call an on-the-job understanding of the country, its language, history, culture, politics and economy. It is not a life spent in deep academic reflection, perhaps unfortunately, but rather engaging in diplomacy to pursue Australia’s national interests, so it is a particular perspective. It is also a personal perspective and does not represent a government view, as I left the public service in December 2017.

Seen from Australia, what does the transition mean? Views range from those arguing that it is quaint, fascinating but meaningless; others that the shift in era will amount to a massive change in the Japanese psyche.

My answer lies somewhere in between. My argument is that the imperial institution, while deeply rooted in Japan’s traditions, is an integral part of Japan’s more recent but well entrenched democracy, and has shown flexibility as it has evolved over time. I also argue that the new Reiwa era will reflect modern Japan as it evolves, rather than determine how it evolves.

The Emperor has less of a political role than other comparable constitutional monarchs or heads of state. His formal political powers are non-existent. Unlike, for example, the Queen in Britain or the Governor-General in Australia, who have residual powers, admittedly rarely exercised, to select a prime minister should there be doubt about an election outcome, the Emperor has no discretion at all in the appointment of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister is chosen by majority vote on the floor of both houses of the Diet (the Japanese Parliament), with the lower house prevailing in the event of disagreement. Only then, once selected, does the Emperor preside over an Attestation Ceremony, that recognises the reality that the Diet has chosen a prime minister. Under the postwar Constitution, the Emperor is defined as the symbol of the unity of the Japanese people, not the head of state. Emperors since 1945, starting with Hirohito part-way through his reign, Akihito and now Naruhito, take very seriously the role of symbol.

The Emperor as symbol isn’t quite the post-war novelty it is made out to be. Nor did the so-called divinity of the Emperor pre-1945 have quite the long pedigree it was supposed to have had. The modern role of symbol has been grafted on to a tradition of the emperors having almost no actual power but a great deal of prestige, that has lasted almost all of the last thousand years. Before that, emperors did have political power, but from the mid-Heian period on, such emperors were the rare exception rather than the rule.

The institution built on its religious functions and its cultural prestige through most of this period. It then shifted it to an enhanced sacred or so-called divine status from the late nineteenth century until 1945, and since then as a symbol, and now a wellentrenched as part of Japan’s democracy.

Distinct from his constitutional role, the Emperor has a religious function as, in effect, the chief Shintō priest. This is not without controversy, because of the postwar constitution’s strict separation between religion and state, that sought to avoid the perceived excesses of the nation-wide and standardised State Shintō cult fostered by the Meiji government.

The emperor performs his state functions largely in the public eye, but his religious ones with much less public focus. It is only in the last few years that we have seen footage of the Emperor’s visits to the Kyūchū Sanden (宮中三殿)shrine, located on the grounds of the Imperial Palace which houses Shintō deities and the spirits of previous emperors.

Arguably, the onerous demands of the religious calendar are one of the reasons for the abdication, as the Emperor was not able to delegate any of these functions. He is essential to ritual. Contrast the British Queen, who while head of the Church of England, isn’t essential to ritual.

Notable too is the Imperial Family’s guardianship of much traditional culture. I could write a book on this, but let me give one example. The Utakai hajime(歌会始の 儀)or Annual New Year’s Poetry Reading at the Palace in January, is presided over by the Emperor and Empress, and attended by the Imperial Family. Six ambassadors are allowed to attend every year, and I was lucky enough to do so in 2013.

Poems composed by each member of the Imperial Family, and by a small group of others selected nationwide, including schoolchildren, to a set theme that changes each year, are chanted aloud. It is a hauntingly beautiful event, at which a tradition that has been around for about 1500 years is on display, and is still under the patronage of the Imperial Family. It attracts considerable popular interest, as about 5 million people are actively involved in poetry writing in Japan.

But the most prominent role for the imperial family in recent decades has been that of consoling the Japanese people at times of calamity, as we saw after the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and now Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako have devoted a great deal of time to this. And it is the role of the imperial institution with which the Japanese people are now most familiar.

Drawing almost as much attention as the abdication and accession of the Emperors, Japan has been transfixed by the announcement of the new era name, its meaning and etymology, and by a wave of nostalgia as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko carried out their last official duties before the abdication took effect on 30 April. Era names up until Meiji would change repeatedly under the one Emperor, depending on national fortunes and political whims of the time. It is only since 1868 that we see one reign name per emperor.

The two characters for Reiwa (令和)are taken separately from the prose preface to a group of poems about plum blossom from the earliest collection of Japanese language court poetry, the Man’yōshū. Not that it is relevant, but I was delighted at the choice, as that collection has always been one of my favourites. Let’s not forget too that there are two plum trees, not cherry trees, planted in the stark minimalist courtyard of the Imperial Palace.

The international coverage of the new reign name was a little misguided, although it is a complicated story. Much has been made of the choice of the earliest Japanese language poetry collection as the source of the new reign name, and not the Chinese classics. Roughly speaking, it is the difference between using Latin and English and does not reflect a geo-political point. What is more, the prose section of the Man’yōshū from which the characters are drawn was written in classical Chinese, and it is only in the editions of more recent centuries that these have been translated into classical Japanese.

We see also criticism of the choice of the Man’yōshū because some of its poems were drawn on during the Second World War for nationalist propaganda. This is unfair. The Man’yōshū is best described as a collection of poetry diverse in content, and including poems authored by ordinary people, such as border guards pining for home, as well as court nobles.

I was in Japan during the transition. It was interesting for what it showed about Japan, both at the official level and among the public.

Notable were the statements made by the Emperor on abdication, and the new Emperor on accession, which emphasised their commitment to the peace constitution, and their role as symbol of the unity of the Japanese people and in contributing to Japan’s international relations.

We could see also that debates about separation of state and religion are still there, including over what parts of the accession ceremonies should be funded by the government. This will continue to be an uneasy point of friction in Japanese society. Most interesting was the way in which it gave Japanese a prompt to reflect, at length, on the last 30 years.

Everyone I know spoke of where they fitted. Those like me who straddled three eras, of Shōwa, Heisei and now Reiwa. Those under 30 who for the first time were experiencing a transition. And of course, those few people still alive – you have to be 107 to achieve it – who have lived through the tail end of Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa, Heisei and Reiwa. Several were interviewed on television. A reminder that the Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world.

What does it all mean? Certainly, Japanese people define themselves in terms of the era names. People born in the 40 year of Shōwa speak of sharing the same musical taste. It does differ from our habit in the English speaking world where people are identified as being of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras only well after those reigns had ended.
The eras mark the passage of time for the country, as well as for individuals.

Meiji (1868-1912) was about opening up to and catching up with the West, as well as establishing a constitutional government and some aspects of representative democracy, at the same time as developing imperial ambitions, sadly, also an aspect of imitating the West.

Taishō (1912-1926) was known for its more liberal spirit, and a strengthening of democratic institutions, but still without a universal franchise.

The first 25 years of Shōwa (1926-1989), as we all know, saw military over-reach, the loss of civilian control, and a catastrophic series of wars, followed by the allied occupation. The second part of Shōwa, the next nearly 40 years, saw Japan accept a new constitution, regain its sovereignty, entrench its democracy and recover economically.

Then Heisei (1989-2019) saw the collapse of the bubble economy, followed by years of low growth, and, toward the end, efforts to revitalise Japan’s economy and society. But we can get carried away. Neither the era name nor the emperors determined the evolution of Japan in any of those periods. Era names came to be shorthand references to the mood of the time, and to reflect Japanese history in retrospect.

The transition raised again the question of the succession. This is a sensitive matter. Only males, and only through the patrilineal line, are eligible. But opinion polling
reveals that 80 percent of the Japanese population support a woman inheriting the throne. And the abdication law explicitly provides for a discussion of options for change. Whatever happens it won’t happen overnight, and will be step-by-step.

I was struck by the joyful atmosphere. Unlike previous transitions marked by the death of the monarch, there was no sense of mourning, as the transition marked an orderly transition, through abdication, for the first time in 202 years. And for many Japanese there was a strong sense of nostalgia, as there was for me, as the media covered all the popular cultural shifts of the last 30 years. Those of you who know Japan, will know Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦)on New Year’s Eve, which brings together the popular cultural highlights of the year. We were treated to highlights of the last 30 years of these.

But the transition doesn’t itself bring with it any big changes. Instead, we see continuity in both Japan’s imperial tradition and in its post-war constitutional settlement, which have evolved together to mould the institution as it is today. The emphasis placed by the two Emperors on their role as symbol, the careful parliamentary deliberations over the abdication, the way in which the Emperor has strengthened the role of the institution, such as through consoling the Japanese people at times of disaster, show how the institution continues to evolve flexibly, albeit slowly.

The new era will see other changes. Prime Minister Abe will probably step down in 2021 at the end of his third and final term as head of the ruling LDP, barring another change in party rules allowing a fourth three-year term.

It is worth looking briefly at the last ten years to examine the changes that have taken place, and how sustainable they are.

Japan has firmed up its defence posture in response to the rise of a stronger, often assertive, on occasions aggressive, China. This started before Abe and will continue after.

This has included constitutional re-interpretation, increased defence expenditure and streamlined national security decision-making. Japan still cannot do all that others can on security and defence but it has more options available to it than it did. In a departure from the past, constitutional reinterpretation means Japan can use military force to aid other countries defend themselves against attack, not just defend itself, so long as there is a direct threat to Japan as well.

Striking too has been Japanese diplomacy, Prime Minister Abe’s strong suit. He has ably led his country navigating strong geo-political tides, and has deftly managed major power relations with China, the United States, India, EU members and Russia. He knew before anyone else the value of personal engagement with President Trump, challenging though that can be. With China, he has held firm, not conceding any of China’s conditions for resumption of high level dialogue in 2015, but being nonetheless willing to re-engage when China was ready. Not a bad model to pursue. We see now a warming of Japan’s relations with China, driven also by China’s desire to improve relations with its neighbours as its relations with the United States worsen.

He has dealt well with Australia, including each of our recent prime ministers, and with India has strengthened relations with a partner not always easy to work with. He is probably over ambitious for relations with Russia. I don’t see settlement of the territorial dispute any time soon, nor a peace treaty.

Turning to the economy, most Japanese would say that he has done better at diplomacy than at economic reform, although rate his stewardship as good enough. By modern international standards, and admittedly they are quite low, the Japanese government doesn’t have a bad record. Every year there has been one signature economic reform.

We see significant trade liberalisation that would have been unthinkable in my earlier years in Japan, starting with our Australia Japan FTA in 2014, then the TPP, and EUJapan. Complementing these agreements, Japan has made progress in reforming its hidebound agricultural sector which is being forced to turn its eyes to opportunities for trading with the world.

We see also some improvements in corporate governance, including more independent board directors and a reduction in the infamous inter-locking corporate shareholdings, which go some way to ameliorating the clubby atmosphere of Japanese corporate life.

And we see some progress on female participation in the workforce, including better childcare, and, more importantly, the beginning of a discussion of the roles that both parents should have in child-rearing, but still a long way to go.

The Diet has passed into law a more organised programme of foreign labour mobility, dare I call it immigration, although that isn’t the terminology used by the Japanese government. It is only a start, and we can criticise Japanese governments that it has taken this long as demography doesn’t move quickly.

Notable too is how tourism promotion has driven regional revitalisation. I understand too that it is local business interests in the regions who have been saying to the Prime Minister and those around him that they need foreign labour to survive. Prime Minister Abe will likely step down, barring rule changes, in 2021. He will continue to be influential.

He has been successful because the Japanese electorate saw him as the right man for the times. It is less likely that he would have been able to mount a come-back, if China’s economic and military weight hadn’t grown so much, and if China hadn’t adopted a relatively assertive posture toward Japan.

He isn’t all powerful. He has to persuade his own party, the broader Japanese system, as well as the electorate, because of the Japanese preference for achieving consensus. But PM Abe has been more willing than most to push change through once he has achieved a critical mass of support, rather than waiting for full consensus.

He isn’t the conservative rightist he is portrayed as – it is a much more complex story.

Yes, he has conservative beliefs, but he is pragmatic. A blinkered conservative rightist wouldn’t have entered into agricultural reform, trade liberalisation, let alone foreign labour liberalisation or use the language of his 2015 apology on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. And I can also say that he is susceptible to influence and persuasion.

Will the achievements of this government be rolled back in the years to come, once he steps down?

Probably not. The strategic and economic changes started before Abe came to power and will continue after. They are driven by necessity. The difference between Abe and his predecessors lies in having political capital spare to make hard decisions that had eluded previous governments.

I will try my hand at a few predictions for the first five years of Reiwa.

Will the Constitution be revised in any meaningful way to allow Japan to use military force? On balance, I don’t think it will. It would be a big risk to take to a popular vote.

But I also predict that the new legislative basis to Japan’s security negotiated through the Diet in 2015, allowing a much greater international security role, won’t be rolled back. Yes, there was opposition, but the secret of the success of the Japanese government is that the LDP, already with diverse views internally on Japan’s defence and security policy, is in coalition with the Kōmeitō, a pacifist party that delivers many votes for LDP candidates. Together, the LDP and Kōmeitō represent a broad swathe of Japanese opinion, which suggests that what they have been able to agree will survive the test of time in post-Abe Japan.

Will foreign labour keep flowing in? Keeping the economy in good shape will require Japan to sustain its progress in trade liberalisation, agricultural reform and handling its demographic challenges by raising female workforce participation and permitting foreign labour. The laws of supply and demand mean that foreign labour is entering Japan in ever greater numbers, particularly from South-east Asia, China and South Asia. It is not a question of whether foreign labour will enter Japan but how socially inclusive Japan can be in dealing with them. I am less pessimistic here than I used to be.

Here sport has had a role to play – the composition of the Japanese rugby team, the support for Naomi Ōsaka in tennis show an increasing willingness by Japan to embrace a more diverse type of Japanese. But it will still take a lot of adjustment to move from tolerating to accepting through to embracing foreign labour in Japan, and it won’t be easy.

Will Japanese resume its dominant economic role in East Asia? No, Japan will not again be the centre of the region’s economy – a position it has been ceding to China for some time. But Japan remains a major global economy, and a key enabler of economic growth through investment, aid and technology. Japan’s enormous stock of overseas investment alone, which reached over $USD 1.47 trillion in 2017, ensures it continues to wield great influence. Japanese companies still have vast reserves of funds ready for investment both globally and domestically.

Where these funds will go, however, is less certain. Yes, funds will follow returns and reflect political and economic risk assessment. The direction they take will also reflect economic growth prospects at home, which are in turn dependent on arresting demographic decline, and continued economic reform. Abroad, pressure from President Trump to invest in the US will affect corporate investment decisions, as we are seeing right now. And the US-China trade war is seeing a fall in the amount of Japanese investment in manufacturing in China.

But even as US trade policy throws up big challenges to global supply chains, they will continue to be influenced by decisions made in boardrooms in Japan, amongst others.

Unlikely to change much are Japan’s challenging strategic circumstances. Japan has not only to grapple with Chinese assertiveness, and the threat posed by North Korea, but also with growing US reluctance to exercise global leadership, which under President Trump takes the form of raising doubts about US reliability.

Unlikely to change too are Japan’s high levels of social trust, low levels of crime, and the quality of Japan’s merchandise and service culture. I conclude with a few short comments on Australia Japan relations. Both Australia and Japan strongly support rules-based frameworks for trade, investment, non-proliferation and dispute settlement. Both want flexible, representative global institutions and a rules-based international framework to support markets.

The shifts in the balance of power affects Japan more pointedly than it does Australia, and pushes our defence and security cooperation further, although we sometimes see differences in threat perception.

China and the United States in their different ways are challenging the existing rulesbased frameworks, prompting Australia and Japan to work together more closely in response to try to sustain that rules-based order. The United States withdrew from the TPP but instead of the whole framework collapsing, which appeared likely, Japan and Australia took the lead to keep it on foot as the TPP-11, without the US.

Our history of stable and predictable bilateral corporate and government dealings will see us turning ever more to one another in an age of growing uncertainty. As patterns of global supply and demand change even more rapidly owing to technological change and growth, producers will seek greater stability and predictability.

As strong and important as Japanese investment in Australia already is, it will almost certainly grow stronger. Japan pumped out a record $USD 160 billion in overseas investment in 2017, second only to the US globally. This figure is four times that of 15 years ago. A good chunk of this will keep coming to Australia. Our FTA also created the conditions for easier Japanese investment in Australia.

Bilateral ties will remain important to both countries, for economic and strategic reasons, and be well anchored in our people-to-people links.

I’ve cantered through three big topics. My message is that Japan is, slowly but effectively, adapting to the challenges it faces, and the evolution of the imperial institution is one example of that.

I hope I have provided something for everyone but quite possibly I have satisfied nobody. I am happy to take questions.


Bruce Miller AO former Ambassador to Japan 2011-17