Hirohito's Long Shadow
Until the end of World War II, Emperor Hirohito was a living god in the minds of many Japanese. By the time of his death in 1989, he was more of a phoenix: the personification of a Japan that was able to rise from the ashes of war. His 64-year reign, the Showa era, was a story of resilience and triumph that weathered military defeat and ultimately conquered the world as an economic powerhouse.
Only four decades after Tokyo was reduced to rubble, Japan rebuilt itself into the second-largest economy in the world. So ascendent was Japan that many in the West began to fear that Japan might simply buy out some of the hottest (and not so hot) assets from across the globe — Hollywood movie studios, Rockefeller Center, the Pebble Beach golf course, and even Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. Such international worries, however, soon dissipated as Japan fell into an economic abyss shortly after Hirohito’s reign, from which it is only now showing signs of re-emergence.
Over the past 25 years since the emperor was laid to rest, Japan has grappled with its own narrative of exceptionalism. It’s easy to fall into the trap of nostalgia—longing for the Showa era days gone by when Japan was clearly the biggest power in Asia and its people were confident of economic superiority underpinned by a diligent workforce, unique business practices, and traditional values.
Change has been painfully slow for Japanese women, and nothing short of a social revolution will propel Japan’s economy even close to what it once was. Yet, the descendants of Emperor Hirohito remain committed to preserving a Japanese value system that is in dire need of sweeping social reform...