It has been nearly 150 years since the emperor of Japan had his official residence in Kyoto, but the city still knows a thing or two about hosting royalty. And that’s just as well as, if a political party based in the city has its way, the nation’s ancient capital will host the household of Emperor Akihito after his abdication from the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The Japanese government in May approved legislation that will permit the 84-year-old emperor to step down and be replaced by his oldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, with his formal abdication likely to take place on December 31, 2018, or the following day.
The debate over whether the emperor should even be permitted to step down has been fierce, with conservatives insisting that he should remain on the throne until his death – reasoning that abdication would reduce the standing of the imperial system and create a dangerous precedent for future generations of the imperial family.
The emperor, who has reigned since the death of his father Emperor Hirohito in January 1989, underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 2003 and was admitted to hospital again in late 2008. He has made clear his own desire to step down from the pressures of the position.
The vast majority of Japanese support that desire and, now it has been decided, the question turns to his role and responsibilities for the rest of his life.
It has been suggested it would benefit the Imperial family if Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, left Tokyo and gave his successor space in which to forge his own role. Naruhito, as emperor, would remain in Tokyo.
And that is what the Kyoto Party believes should happen. “There are a couple of reasons we believe [Akihito] should come to live in Kyoto, but the primary one is that many citizens of the city have the sense that they want him to come ‘home’ as soon as possible,” said Shoei Murayama, a member of the Kyoto Party.
“It was 150 years ago when Emperor Meiji said ‘I will go to Tokyo from Kyoto’ because the political leaders of the day needed him to ... create what we know as the Meiji government,” he said.
“There are many in Kyoto who have long been opposed to the emperor living in Tokyo and want him to return ‘home’, and this might be that opportunity.”
Kyoto is home to three of the six locations in Japan that are recognised as the emperor’s official venues, including the Takamikura, the imperial throne, which has been used in enthronement ceremonies since 707 and the reign of Empress Genmei.
To date, 10,745 people have signed a petition calling for Akihito to relocate his household to Kyoto after abdication, a plan that also has the support of the Kyoto government. In mid-June, Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa said his government would ask the national government to study the possibility of at least some of the members of the imperial family moving to Kyoto, with experts from a broad background invited to take part in the debate. The proposal ties in neatly with a panel made up of members of the city’s academic, business and cultural communities calling for Kyoto to be made the nation’s joint cultural capital with Tokyo.
The government’s Cultural Affairs Agency is scheduled to move its headquarters to Kyoto in 2019 as part of the government’s efforts to decentralise the bureaucracy, while having at least some of the imperial family in residence would help to raise the city’s status.
“By being in Kyoto, the imperial family will be able to recreate the long-lost court culture of the city and make Kyoto a capital of culture once again,” Murayama said.
Inevitably, there will be knock-on effects for local businesses and residents, especially in the tourism sector. As recently as 2003, a mere 5 million foreign visitors came to Japan annually. Last year, that figure passed the 20 million mark and the government has set a target of 40 million arrivals in the year 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games. One decade later, 60 million people are expected to visit.
For the vast majority of those people, particularly those visiting for the first time, the ancient capital will be high on the list of must-see destinations.
And that includes Chinese travellers. Japan issued a record 4.2 million visas to Chinese in 2016 and the well-trodden “Golden Route” will have taken most of them through Kyoto.
Having an emperor and empress in residence and occasionally glanced by visitors is likely to significantly heighten the appeal of the city as a stopping-off point for any stay in Japan.
The Kyoto Party’s proposal is for Akihito and his court to reside at the existing imperial palace, in the very heart of the city, which has recently undergone a complete seismic retrofit.
The emperor himself has made no comment on the suggestion that he move to Kyoto, although Murayama admits that the Imperial Household Agency – the power behind the throne – is less than enthusiastic. “I have heard that the agency is negative about the idea because of the anticipated increase in costs related to operational expenses,” he said. “On the other hand, it is also true that there is a problem in the fact that the imperial family is too concentrated in Tokyo,” he said. “And there is the widespread belief that Kyoto should be better utilised as a national asset.
“Taking the positives and negatives into consideration,” said Murayama, “perhaps one solution would be for the emperor and empress to live in Kyoto during the spring and autumn. I believe that is a proposal that could win the necessary support.” ■