Researchers randomly asked what they thought about the increasing intensity of speech or behavior that ethnically or racially discriminate against foreigners (hate speech) or art exhibitions that negatively portray Japanese culture and history at publicly managed museums and events. Once they had answered, respondents were shown a quote from a speech by Naruhito’s father, then emperor Akihito, in which he said “securing freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy and very important”. When asked the initial question again, researchers found Japanese people lowered their support for regulating expression in public spaces, in line with the views of the former emperor.
The implication of the evidence is still open to discussion and there are not enough studies about how and when such an influence is strengthened or weakened. It may be a matter of concern that in Japan a hereditary figure, who is not chosen through election, can have political influence, or that the cross-cutting influence of the emperor implies that he can play a role in alleviating ideological divisions in democratic politics. That is a debate-worthy issue. Clearly, however, there is no doubt that monarchs can have real power and influence in democratic politics.
How Tonga strikes a balance between king and democracy
Tonga, with its monarchy, is a case in point.
When the current King Tupou VI was crowned in 2015 the celebrations lasted 11 days, much longer than the more modest three-day program planned for King Charles III. The Tongan celebrations began with a kava ceremony and traditional gifts from local chiefs being presented to the king. They reached their zenith with the formal crowning of the king and queen at the Royal Palace grounds and ended with a military tattoo.
The crowning of King Tupou VI was also notable for being the first under Tonga's more democratically elected government, following the most significant constitutional reforms in the country's history in 2010. Multiple attempts have been made to further amend the constitution since then, but they remain the only significant amendments to have been passed so far.
The people of Tonga pride themselves on being the last remaining monarchy in the Pacific and having never ceded their sovereignty, despite coming under Britain's protection in 1900, and joining the Commonwealth in 1970. The eminent Pacific researcher, the late Guy Powles, attributed Tonga's political stability to this "unique amalgam of Tongan chiefly authority and British forms of government and law" which was adopted and accepted by the people of Tonga since 1875.
The Tongan monarch had significant political power and authority as the head of government and the head of state under the 1875 Constitution of Tonga, up until the 2010 democratic reforms. But the monarch still has absolute discretion on appointments to the Privy Council – the members of which today serve as advisors to the monarch and also hear appeals from the Land Court but are no longer part of the executive branch of government – and the power of pardon under special clauses of the Constitution.
That the king did not lose all his executive powers during the 2010 reforms can be looked at from two points of view. Traditionalist Tongans believe people have trusted their monarch for so long that the best course of action is to continue to do so. The monarch's wide influence as the hau or traditional leader entitles him or her to exercise royal prerogatives wherever there are gaps. This means that there is no need to scrutinize any law in great detail to define terms, draw lines and seek strict interpretations. In fact, it would be considered rather disloyal to do so. Another view is that the monarch is not averse to taking on new ideas and seeking new directions and policies for the nation. Accountability will be applied by an ever-vigilant population.
The 2010 reforms represented the first major change to Tonga's political landscape since 1875 and were introduced relatively peacefully, which was seen as a great credit to the Tongan cultural values of restraint, respect and responsibility. They diluted the power of the monarch by shifting some of his executive power to the Legislative Assembly, primarily the cabinet.
Prior to the 2010 reforms, the prime minister and other members of the cabinet were appointed and dismissed by the monarch. The monarch hence had a substantial degree of control over the government: Ministers were directly responsible and accountable to the monarch and not to parliament or the people of Tonga.
But by the early 1990s, demand was growing for a more democratic government. The first official step toward reform occurred after the general election in March 2005, when King Taufa'ahau (Tupou IV, who died on September 10, 2006) appointed to cabinet two elected nobles' representatives and two elected people's representatives, one of whom was chosen to be prime minister in March 2006. He was the first commoner to hold the position.
The pressure on the government and the monarch came from public service strikes and protest marches about public service reforms and utility costs as well as political change between 2005 and 2006. In October 2006, the new King George V (who reigned until his death on 18 March 2012) publicly announced his support for political reform and volunteered to relinquish his constitutional authority.