Beyond the Postwar Era
The logic for dividing Japanese as well as global time around 1990 is compelling. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the two Germanies were united in 1990. The Soviet empire disintegrated in 1989, and the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. In Japan, the Shōwa emperor died on the eve of this season of European revolution, in January 1989. In July, the LDP suffered a crushing defeat in the upper house Diet election. The party lost its majority in that chamber for the first time since it was founded. In 1990, the speculative bubble of the 1980s burst in spectacular fashion, inaugurating over a decade of economic stagnation. Both the global context and the domestic spirit of the 1990s differed markedly from the 1980s.
In September 1987, Emperor Hirohito underwent surgery to treat a swollen pancreas. In September 1988, he collapsed with internal bleeding. Widespread rumors that he was in fact suffering from cancer proved correct, although this was not confirmed by the government until after his death. The people of Japan were drawn into a lingering death watch through four excruciating months of hemorrhage and transfusions. The emperor died on January 7, 1989, and the Shōwa era was over. It had been the longest single reign in the history of the monarchy. The government immediately announced the new reign name of Heisei (literally, “attaining peace”). Hirohito's son, Crown Prince Akihito, officially took the throne on November 12, 1990.
The death of the emperor revealed some important continuities in the place of the imperial institution in Japan. During his months of decline, the major newspapers printed daily reports of the emperor's vital signs and bodily traumas: temperature and pulse and incidents of vomiting blood, rectal bleeding, and transfusion. Despite the coverup of the fact of cancer, this was a strangely invasive public spectacle of the death of a monarch whose private acts, thoughts, and physical condition were almost completely hidden from view for his entire life. Violating imperial privacy in this way was not a democratic innovation of postwar times; the practice of presenting the emperor's medical condition to the nation was a modern tradition invented at the time of the Emperor Meiji's death in 1912. Government officials who released this infor