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  • Preface: A Difficult New Dawn
  • Frank Feltens (bio)

In a televised address on January 7, 1989, chief cabinet secretary Obuchi Keizō announced the name of a new era of imperial reign: Heisei. The dispassionate delivery of the proclamation contrasted with the historic gravity of the moment. The ascension of Emperor Akihito (b. 1933) to the chrysanthemum throne marked the end of his father Hirohito’s (1901–89) sixty-four year reign. Hirohito was by far the longest serving modern Japanese monarch. With its sheer length and historic potency, his reign, the Shōwa era (1926–89), had become a multi-faceted, deeply complex amalgam of decisive national and international events. It combined the horrors of the Asia-Pacific War with the postwar economic boom that propelled Japan from the position of a military aggressor to that of a world-leading industrial powerhouse. Tanks and airplanes became washing machines and Shinkansen trains. The longevity of Hirohito’s reign, his complicated role in the war, and the epoch-making changes for Japan as a nation and culture throughout the Shōwa era almost threatened to render Heisei a footnote in Japanese twentieth-century history—a final tune to a Wagnerian opera.

However, history has taught us otherwise. The thirty years of the Heisei era turned out to be a profoundly transformative time for Japan and the world. The era’s name—“attaining peace”—heralded a powerful break with Japan’s wartime past. The advent of Heisei marked the apex of decades of economic expansion, growth that secured Japan’s place as the only Asian nation among the Group of Seven, yet one that was built on unsustainable premises and precarious financial principles. Emphatically low interest rates resulted in an equity bubble whose rupture in the early nineties slashed the Nikkei index in half, instigating a financial collapse that caused a deep-seated psychological and economic trauma. As a compounding factor, Japanese politics seemed unable to cope with the tasks at hand and cycled through a series of seventeen prime ministers during the Heisei era. [End Page 1]

The most influential of them was Abe Shinzō (b. 1954). The importance of Abe on Japanese politics, economy, and culture cannot be overstated. The son of a foreign minister and grandson of a prime minister, Abe hailed from one of Japan’s political dynasties whose influence was rooted in prewar industry and had expanded in the postwar years. As Abe assumed his first tenure as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, he stepped into his ancestors’ footsteps. Abe instigated and expanded tectonic shifts in Japan’s foreign policy, shifts that resonated as much abroad as they did at home.

Abe’s political philosophy found its manifestation in a book issued in the year of his election. Titled Toward a Beautiful Japan (Utsukushii Nihon e, 2006), it laid out Abe’s vision for the country, its culture, and its people. Embracing a strong sense of patriotism and love of country, Abe’s government assumed a decidedly assertive approach against North Korea, while seeking stronger political and economic bonds with other Asian nations, especially in Southeast Asia. These paradigms disclosed the aim of strengthening Japan’s regional role and, by extension, its international reach. Increasingly, the country assumed a proactive foreign policy that differed from the more passive diplomacy of previous administrations. Abe was reelected in 2012 and remained in office through three subsequent elections until 2020, making him by far the longest-serving Japanese prime minister. Abe’s many years in power left a profound imprint on the country’s political focus, economic outlook, and cultural environment.

Domestic policies, mainly in education, followed a two-fold path: The Abe government sought to expand Japan’s role as a destination for international students and make Japanese society more outward-facing. At the same time, repeated attempts were made to edit and sugarcoat Japan’s troubled wartime history in school curricula and textbooks. Abe’s visibility on the world stage helped strengthen Japan’s image abroad while at the same time propelling controversial measures at home, such as ventures to reinterpret and outright change Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution. In short, the Heisei era was, in many ways...