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How can Japan balance past and present if emperor steps down?

Credit: Eugene Hoshiko via AP

Japanese Emperor Akihito delivered a nationally broadcast message on Monday in which he indicated his desire to step down from the throne in the near future. It was only the second time in his twenty-eight-year reign that he has delivered a video message to the whole of Japan, the first coming after a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, created the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. He felt this speech necessary after rumors began to circulate last month about his plans to abdicate.

In describing the need to renounce his position, Akihito cited concerns over his health and the effects of age on his ability to adequately perform the duties required by the "symbol of the state," as he is referred to in Japan's constitution. While those duties no longer include direct governance or rule, he remains an important figure within Japanese society.

The emperor seemed fairly confident that he could continue to exist in the role were mere existence all that was required. However, he expects more of himself than that and stated that his country deserves more than that from its leader. Akihito prides himself on his willingness to travel the country in order to better understand and serve his people, but he fears that his body is no longer up to the task.

The process of stepping down, however, is neither simple nor straightforward. While choosing a successor will be easy—his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, stands ready to take his place—an emperor hasn't voluntarily left the throne since 1817. Moreover, there are currently no provisions in Japanese law to handle the abdication progress and many fear it could open a "Pandora's box" of issues as it gives grounds for a complete review of the imperial family's role in Japanese society.


Ultimately, it seems unlikely that Akihito will do something to cause unneeded chaos and unrest among his people, which is perhaps why he avoided directly stating any plans to abdicate despite the strong indications. However, the eighty-two-year-old emperor understands that simply waiting for nature to replace him while his ability to care for his county declines further is not in their best interests either. There has to be a balance between those two extremes, and perhaps his forcing the conversation to find that equilibrium will be among his more lasting contributions.

Balancing the expectations of the past with the needs of the present can be quite difficult at times. When those expectations come primarily from others rather than yourself the task gets even harder. That's true for Japan's ruling family and for us as well. As Christians, while we may not have the weight of a nation resting on our ability to maintain that balance, we do live with the weight of a different sort of kingdom.

If we stop and think about the eternal ramifications of our lives here on earth—about the fact that the God of the universe has entrusted us with the task of sharing the only message that can save the countless billions currently living apart from him—it can feel quite daunting. It should. After all, that's not a calling that any of us should take lightly. God expects us to share that message with those we meet, just as those who came before us have shared it with their world for the better part of two thousand years.

That's quite the legacy, and understanding how to continue it in our present culture presents quite a challenge. Fortunately, the same God that gave us the calling has also equipped us to carry it out. The key to balancing those expectations with our world's present need is relying on God to guide and equip us to fulfill his will.

When Jesus spoke to those who were being crushed under the weight of the Law and expectations they could no longer carry, he invited them to set aside that yoke for his, promising that it would be easy or, as it's better translated, well-fitting (Matthew 11:25–30). Christ's invitation was not to shed the burdens of expectation that God has placed on each of us, but rather to learn how to carry them in his strength rather than our own. That's the only way we will be able to effectively share the gospel with the lost around us—the only way that we'll ever be able to live out our calling without being crushed under its weight.

Make no mistake, each of us has been given a task that, apart from the grace and strength of our Lord, is utterly impossible. Fortunately, we serve a God who specializes in equipping us for just such a calling.

So whose yoke are you carrying today? Only one will let you balance the expectations God has placed on his people for thousands of years with the needs of our present culture. Are you using it?

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