A new emperor, a new era, a new relationship for NZ and Japan

A former ambassador to Japan says New Zealand has the potential to build an even closer relationship with the country as it welcomes a new emperor and new era.

On May 1, Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito will succeed his father, Akihito, to become the country’s 126th emperor. This will mark the end of the Heisei era, and the beginning of the new Reiwa era.

Ian Kennedy was posted to Japan three times throughout his diplomatic career, starting in 1976 and most recently from 2007 to 2012, when he served as ambassador.

During this time, he witnessed many of the trials and tribulations of the Heisei era, which began in 1989, including the so-called “lost decades” of economic stagnation, and three major disasters — the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, followed by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Kennedy said these challenges are hinted at in the name of the new era, Reiwa, which is taken from a Japanese poem about the beauty of plum blossoms after a harsh winter.

“It’s been a tough time for Japan — it’s been a bit of a winter. In that sense, the name for the new era is very poetic and aspirational — now is the time for Japan to flower like the plum blossom.”

From god to emperor of the people

Kennedy said the ascension of Crown Prince Naruhito — who will be Japan’s first emperor to be born after World War II — was also significant, as over the years the role of the emperor has transformed from a “deity” to a symbol of the nation.

“It’s a huge transition in a relatively short period of time, from an emperor as 'god' to an emperor of the people. My sense is the Japanese people look at the imperial family now and think, they are us — they represent us in terms of our values and cultural identity.

“Naruhito is Oxford-educated, his wife Masako is a former diplomat. Their daughter is also said to be very fluent in English, as well as across Japanese culture and traditions.

“It’s another step in the transition of the Japanese imperial presence, from an emperor (Showa) who the people could not really approach, to one (Heisei) with great empathy for the people, to the new emperor (Reiwa) who I think there can be high hopes will have a very international outlook.”

New era, new partnerships

For New Zealand, there would be many opportunities to work with Japan going forward into the new era, said Kennedy, who is chairman of the Japan New Zealand Business Council.

“There are signs the transition from Heisei to Reiwa will see a heightened focus on the environment and sustainable development. Those are both priority areas also for New Zealand with exciting potential to build the relationship further.

“In the past, it’s been all about Japanese cars and electronic goods coming to New Zealand and agricultural, forestry and fisheries products from New Zealand to Japan. Those sectors will remain important,  but with the focus increasingly on sustainability, innovation and creativity. Companies such as Sumitomo Forestry and Oji Holdings have long been at the forefront with their partners in New Zealand.

"In agriculture, also there’s a great example here in New Zealand— a company called Robotics Plus, which is linked with Yamaha Motor Co. They’re creating robots that can pollinate kiwifruit or apple orchards and do the harvesting and packaging. That’s going to be the future of Japanese agriculture, and New Zealand can be a great partner in that.”

Japan’s new hydrogen strategy and move towards renewable energy, and New Zealand’s commitment to zero carbon could also open opportunities for partnership, Kennedy said.

“[Japanese construction company] Obayashi Corporation has been working with the Tuaropaki Trust in Taupō to see if you can generate green hydrogen from geothermal. At the moment, it seems very expensive, but if you could do it from geothermal, it could become a real growth area in terms of cooperation between New Zealand and Japan.”

The emperor and I

Kennedy said people might not realise just how interested the Japanese emperor is in international affairs. As ambassador, he had the chance to speak with Emperor Akihito on a number of occasions.

“There’s a strong sense that the emperor is host to the diplomatic corps and committed to ensuring they feel welcome in Japan.

“When I left, there was an invitation for my wife and I to call on the emperor and empress to say farewell. They gave us a good 45 minutes, ranging from fond memories of their visit to New Zealand as crown prince and princess early in their married life, to current events. You get the feeling they’re very genuinely interested in what’s going on for the Japanese people, and keen to know also what’s happening in your country, too.”

As Heisei draws to a close, Kennedy said there’s no doubt it’s an exciting time for Japan.

“As well as the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics coming up, I believe we’re going to see a shift to an economy that will be led increasingly by innovation and creativity. And that’s where New Zealand can have a different and much more value-added partnership with Japan with much greater interaction among our peoples.”

Interview by Siobhan Downes.

 - Asia Media Centre