April 30, 2019
By Malcolm Foster
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese expressed warmth and gratitude toward Emperor Akihito ahead of his abdication on Tuesday, but judged his three-decade Heisei era as a period of difficulty and transition for Japan after the economic boom and confidence of the 1980s.
More than anything, people said they hoped peace would define the reign of Crown Prince Naruhito, who will become emperor on Wednesday, ushering in the Reiwa era.
“Heisei had a lot of disasters and the economy stagnated,” 47-year-old Kaori Hisatomi said in the capital Tokyo, where ceremonies were underway at the Imperial Palace.
“It was a period of transition from the high-growth era, with its ‘can-you-work-24 hours’ mentality. Young people these days don’t think that way. Now it’s more, ‘What can I do to survive?’”
Japan is marking the transition to 59-year-old Naruhito, who will ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne on Wednesday, with an unprecedented 10-day holiday.
The Heisei era began in early 1989, just before the collapse of Japan’s “bubble economy,” when sky-high stock and land prices plunged. The decades of tepid growth and deflation that followed have tempered expectations about the economic future and Japan’s place in the world.
“Thinking patterns have changed,” Hisatomi said. “There’s not much confidence the economy will grow in a healthy way.”
Japan suffered several tragedies in the past three decades, including a huge earthquake and tsunami in 2011 that led to a nuclear crisis. In 1995, a quake devastated the port of Kobe, and sarin attacks launched by a cult in Tokyo’s subway system shattered the myth of public safety.
Visits to disaster areas by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and their efforts to connect with ordinary people, have made them a popular royal couple.
Standing outside the Imperial Palace in a drizzle, 64-year-old Naoomi Kuroshima, from the northern island of Hokkaido, said he was there to “pay my last respect, to say my ‘thank you.’”
He recalled the couple’s visit to Hokkaido after it was hit by a quake last year. “I’m so grateful for that.”
Walking to a Shinto shrine to mark the day with his wife, 56-year-old Masatoshi Kujirai said he had mixed feelings.
“I’m sad but also hopeful about the next era,” he said. “I hope it will be a peaceful, gentle period for the second half of my life.”
Masato Saito, a 40-year-old construction worker, said he had not given the abdication or the coming new era much thought.
“It’s a normal day. That kind of political stuff is irrelevant to us ordinary people,” he said. “As long as they make our lives easy to live, that’s all I care.”
Eiji Kaneko, a restaurant owner from Osaka, said the abdication was a turning point for Japan in becoming a more open country and accepting of foreigners.
“More tourists and foreigners are coming to Japan and that’s helping the economy and starting to change attitudes,” he said, visiting Tokyo with his wife and 4-year-old son.
“Japan is opening up, and Asia is opening up.”
(Reporting and writing by Malcolm Foster; Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Darren Schuettler)