The Emperor’s New Goal

NEW DELHI – Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, in a rare overseas trip, are scheduled to begin a tour of the Indian cities of New Delhi and Chennai on November 30. The imperial couple’s weeklong visit is likely to mark a defining moment in Indo-Japanese relations, fostering closer economic and security ties between Asia’s two leading democracies as they seek a pluralistic, stable Asian order.

Traditionally, a visit from the Japanese emperor – except for a coronation or royal anniversary celebration – signified a turning point in a bilateral relationship. While the emperor is merely the “symbol of the state” under Japan’s US-imposed postwar constitution, he retains significant influence, owing to Japanese veneration of the imperial dynasty – the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, the origins of which can be traced to 660 BC. Indeed, the emperor’s overseas visits remain deeply political, setting the tone – if not the agenda – for Japan’s foreign policy.

Consider Akihito’s 1992 visit to China – the first such visit by any Japanese emperor. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s government – grateful for Japan’s reluctance to maintain punitive sanctions over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and eager for international recognition, not to mention Japanese capital and commercial technologies – had extended seven invitations over two years.

Akihito’s trip, which came at the height of Japan’s pro-China foreign policy, was followed by increased Japanese aid, investment, and technology transfer, thereby cementing Japan’s role in China’s economic rise. The improved diplomatic relationship lasted until the recent flare-up of territorial and other bilateral disputes.