10.07.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Some aspects of the visit of the Emperor of Japan and his wife to the United Kingdom

Emperor Naruhito of Japan and his wife Masako

At the end of June, the Japanese imperial couple paid a seven-day visit to the United Kingdom. Some aspects of this event and a number of accompanying political events in Japan, which is becoming one of the most important participants in the current stage of the “Great World Game”, are undoubtedly of interest.

The visit of the Japanese imperial couple to the United Kingdom

From 23 to 29 June, Emperor Naruhito of Japan and his wife Masako visited the United Kingdom at the invitation of King Charles III.

Naruhito ascended the Japanese throne on 1 May 2019, replacing his father Akihito, who had abdicated due to an official health scare. According to ancient Japanese tradition, the reign of each new emperor is marked by specific symbolism. When Naruhito ascended the throne, his reign was marked with two hieroglyphs (令和), which in Russian translates as “Reiwa”. This is the name under which he will enter the next world. His great-grandfather, under whom Japan began to take on a modern appearance, entered the country’s history under the symbol “Meiji”.

However, unlike the period from 1868 to 1912 (when Emperor Meiji died) and from then until 1945, under the post-war constitution the monarch of Japan is now only formally the head of state, exercising representative functions. The actual administration of all aspects of the state is in the hands of the government, which is formed by a coalition of parties that holds a majority of seats in the bicameral parliament following the results of the most recent (often snap) general election.

In reality, however, the reigning Emperor of Japan has unquestionable moral authority at home, and his (extremely rare) trips abroad invariably become important foreign policy events for the country he is visiting. Although, to repeat, the current Emperor does not seem to be involved in any political specifics, and the foreign trip in question was made under the symbolism of “expressing goodwill” to the visiting country.

As for Britain, it is becoming an increasingly appropriate object for Japan to express such warm feelings. In fact, with the exception of the “misunderstanding” of 1941-1945, the history of bilateral relations is, on the whole, quite favourable. Between 1902 and 1921, the two countries were even allies. The symbol of their importance at that time was the award of the Order of the Garter, the highest British decoration, by Emperor Meiji in 1906.

The Emperor himself and his father received the same honour. Naruhito, incidentally, honoured Charles III with the highest order of Japan. In the author’s opinion, this exchange of signs of attention and respect between the monarchs of the United Kingdom and Japan was the most significant event of the entire visit. Although there were other interesting events, for example, the future spouses, who are now the Imperial couple of Japan, spent several years in Oxford in the 1980s. It was therefore a good opportunity for both of them to recall their student days.

All in all, this “goodwill” visit, despite its non-political appearance, fits into the general trend of recent years to establish particularly trusting relations between Japan and the United Kingdom.

Modern Europe in Japanese foreign policy

The starting point of this process can be identified with sufficient certainty. It is connected with the visit of the then British Prime Minister Theresa May to Japan in 2016, when the question of finding new external partners after the country’s withdrawal from the EU arose.

The aforementioned process of Japan-UK rapprochement is becoming comprehensive. As for the trade and economic sphere, it is also developing in various ways. In particular, London is on the verge of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a regional trade and economic bloc.

A bilateral free trade agreement was signed in 2020. But of course, the UK’s main partners in this area will remain the European countries and the United States. The “turn to the East” in the UK’s course cannot happen quickly after the formal end of EU membership.

At the same pace, the UK’s defence policy is being “rebalanced”, which is particularly well received in Japan. Since 2022, a bilateral Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) has been in force between the two countries’ armed forces (Japan has a similar agreement with Australia, for example). The “2+2 format”, involving the foreign and defence ministers, operates regularly. The joint development (with the participation of Italy) of the “6th generation” fighter aircraft is underway.

However, Japan’s political “turn” towards Europe is by no means limited to activities in the UK. It is worth noting that the leading countries of continental Europe are also undergoing a “turn”, also significantly in favour of Japan. And this is particularly noticeable in the defence sector. The most recent event to be held in Japan at the end of July will be a joint air force exercise involving units from Germany, France and Spain.

Also, in the context of all the above, it is worth noting once again the growing conventionality of the “Europe” category, where centuries-old games involving the major European countries are becoming more and more visible. These will undoubtedly intensify as the US presence here diminishes. Under these circumstances, the lack of clarity in answering the question of what is actually meant by this category is a serious problem for all non-European players.

Moreover, it is difficult to understand why there is so much enthusiasm in the public sphere about the prospect of the US withdrawing from Europe, and why there are so many prophecies of “the collapse of America itself”. Leaving aside the moral component of the latter expectations (after all, we are talking about the fate of 330 million generally quite sympathetic people), let us just ask one simple question: what will happen to one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals in this case?

Moreover, the author can already hear the impatient crunching of the bones of the centuries-old European skeletons in the cupboard, locked up since 1945. Thanks to the presence of the USA. As the saying goes, never be afraid to make your dreams come true, lest one day you find yourself in the position of the person who finally made them come true.

F. Kishida’s government on the verge of resignation

Meanwhile, in Japan itself, the current government is already being badly defined as “dysfunctional”. There are a number of serious reasons for this. Not all of them are a consequence of the failure of the Kishida cabinet, as some of them are inherited from previous governments, and some are of a more long-term, fundamental nature.

For example, one of the most serious and dangerous problems, which has been discussed repeatedly in the NEO, is caused by years of continuous decline in the birth rate.

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, this problem is beginning to define the entire face of Japanese domestic politics. But this, again, fundamental problem is overlaid with the “costs” of the current Japanese government and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that supports it.

A particularly negative impression has been made on the public by the long-standing corruption scandals, which came to a head at the end of last year. In this case, it was related to the creation of slush funds to support the activities of the LDP.

All this has led to a sharp decline in the ratings of the current cabinet of ministers and Prime Minister F. Kishida himself. The LDP under his leadership is already facing the prospect of defeat in the next general election, which will be held in the autumn of next year. In this respect, the LDP’s defeat at the end of April in the race for three vacant parliamentary seats was a worrying signal for the government. The opposition won all of them. At the time of writing, Japan’s “party and government” leadership was anxiously awaiting the outcome of the upcoming Tokyo gubernatorial election on 7 July.

Incumbent Prime Minister F. Kishida’s term as LDP leader ends in the autumn of this year, and his name is not mentioned among several contenders. This means that a year before the next general election, Japan will be led by a new government, albeit on behalf of the LDP.

As far as Japan’s foreign policy is concerned, we should not expect any major innovations with the change of government. But after the general election in a year’s time, we may well see some changes.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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