On July 13, just three days after Japan’s ruling coalition secured a critical two-thirds majority in parliament, a news report emerged that the country’s long-serving Emperor wishes to abdicate ‘within the next few years’. (According to some news media, the abdication story was held over until after the election at the government’s insistence.) On the surface, the two events might appear unrelated; however, various intriguing possibilities are worth exploring.
Because it was NHK, the staid national broadcaster, that reported on Emperor Akihito’s retirement plan, quoting unnamed sources, most people have tended to believe it. Then, shortly afterwards, two things happened to spin the issue for maximum confusion: the Imperial Household Agency, the bureaucracy that manages the imperial family, categorically denied the NHK story; and the respected Kyodo news agency came out with a report saying the government had been secretly studying the implications of an abdication for some time.
It is quite usual for the Japanese public to be kept in the dark about the affairs of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Members of the imperial family are rarely allowed to speak their minds; in many ways, they have less freedom than an ordinary Japanese citizen.
So how should we read the tea leaves?
Emperor Akihito is 82. In 2003 he was treated for prostate cancer and in 2012 he had heart bypass surgery. His face is now permanently bloated from an unspecified regime of medication. On his 80th birthday he publicly stated that he was beginning to find the rigors of the job overtaxing. It is therefore unsurprising that Akihito might want to step down before too long.
Which brings us to the near coincidence of the abdication story and the recent elections.
The Imperial Household Act of 1947 that governs the affairs of the monarchy makes no provision for abdication. The law would have to be amended. Some commentators believe the Emperor has raised the issue for public discussion to tie-up political debate when the government would prefer clear air for its own plans for constitutional change. (The two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet that revisionists now command makes it possible to pass a proposal for constitutional amendment.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would look callous pursuing his pet project before attending to an old man’s desire for a well-earned rest.
This ‘blocking’ theory, if I can call it that, is based on the belief that Emperor Akihito opposes meddling with the constitution, especially Article 9 whereby Japan renounces war and pledges not to maintain the means to wage war again. During last year’s commemorations marking the end of the Pacific War, many observers contrasted Abe’s efforts to rule a line under the past with the Emperor’s emphasis on atoning for the nation’s grievous mistakes. Akihito’s modest demeanor also distinguishes him from the egotistical Abe. As a strict constitutional monarch, however, he would never openly oppose the government.
Akihito ascended the throne in 1989 following the long, slow death of his father Hirohito. In the weeks leading up to Hirohito’s passing, the Imperial Household Agency would post bulletins containing bare medical statistics, bereft of humanity, which many people found ghoulish and demeaning. The episode underscored how the institution of the monarchy, in the hands of bureaucrats, can be made to resemble just another on-time train. How much more traumatic it must have been for the son unable tell the doctors to take his brain-dead father off life support.
The reign of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko has been marked by a diligent devotion to duty and a determination to bring the imperial family closer to the common people. The aging couples’ repeated visits to earthquake-hit areas to comfort bereaved families and the homeless have been universally admired. To be no longer able to perform these duties, and so lose direct contact with ordinary people, would go against everything they have tried to achieve. One can imagine them nodding in approval when Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Pope Benedict XVI decided to step down from their positions in recent years because they could no longer serve to the best of their ability. (The NHK story cited both cases as precedents.)
Prime Minister Abe has not commented on the abdication reports. Those who assume he would be appalled by the idea may be right. He is certainly a traditionalist and is known to have opposed moves in the past to amend the Imperial Household Act to allow women and matrilineal heirs to inherit the throne. That issue arose because Crown Prince Naruhito does not have a son; it lost its urgency after a son was born to Naruhito’s brother, assuring the male line for at least one more generation.
Would Abe be likely to allow the emperor to retire, like any ordinary salaryman, when he and his supporters want to enhance the status of the monarch? There is one scenario under which the answer to this question might be ‘yes’. Under this scenario, the government might perceive an advantage in linking revision of the Imperial Household Act to amendments it seeks to the section of the constitution that defines the role of the emperor.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party wants to change the basic law to ‘prescribe the Emperor as the head of the State, the symbol of the State and as a unifying entity for the people’. This new language omits an important qualification contained in the present constitution that the Emperor ‘derives his position from the sovereign will of the people, and from no other source’. Revisionists cite this as an example of how the document’s American drafters used the basic law to satisfy an Allied wartime objective to demystify the emperor, which, they say, is now anachronistic. Opponents of change argue that the existing clause enshrines the key democratic principle that sovereignty resides with the people, and is not an anachronism.
Abe is a keen proponent of wide-ranging constitutional change. However, because the issue has usually been framed in terms of keeping or scrapping Article 9, which most Japanese either do not want to jettison or are at least reluctant to, his ambition has been thwarted. If the argument could be shifted towards Chapter 1 of the constitution, which contains the several articles relating to the Emperor, it might help him break the impasse. Put another way, in granting Emperor Akihito’s request, he might be able to scatter some pixie dust on himself.
Abe’s revisionist views are in line with an influential right-wing group called Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), which is committed to overturning what it considers the ‘false view of history’ perpetrated by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (on which the Australian judge Sir William Webb presided as president). It advocates policies on education and military preparedness designed to advance ‘the glory of the nation’. Nippon Kaigi’s senior membership overlaps with that of the Association of Shinto Shrines that hopes to put the nativist religion back at the centre of public life. Abe is special advisor to the parliamentary league of Nippon Kaigi.
Worrying signs of a drift back towards State Shinto (which the militarists in the 1930s used to espouse Japanese racial superiority and a ‘right to rule’ Asia) become more apparent every day.
When Abe hosted other G-7 leaders at a summit meeting in May, he chose to greet them at Ise Grand Shrine, the most sacred of all Shinto shrines. Imagine François Hollande welcoming G-7 leaders on the steps of Notre Dame? Then, at the start of campaigning for the recent upper house elections, the prime minister invited news cameras to film him visiting a Shinto shrine in Tokyo to ‘pray for victory’. It’s not surprising to find the LDP proposes other changes to the 1947 constitution that would do away with the strict separation of church and state.
The possibility of the abdication issue playing into the hands of the conservatives cannot be discounted. With his public approval rating on the rise, and fresh from a fourth consecutive election victory, Abe appears cockier than ever. He now refers to himself in the third person when extolling the virtues of ‘Abenomics’, his purported remedy for deflation and economic stagnation. The fact that his policies have produced precious little in the way of results should, apparently, be set aside. ‘Abenomics’ has taken on a talisman-like quality, a creed that Japanese must follow, come what may. Time and again, on the campaign trail, Abe told voters there was no alternative to ‘Abenomics’. It sounded a bit like the no-other-choice slogans of wartime politicians.
Emperor Akihito might be trying to divert the country from a dangerous path, in one of the few ways he can. His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, is regarded as a liberal spirit, and has declared wholehearted support for the country’s ‘peace constitution’. An imperial succession, with modern trappings, might excite a lethargic electorate and forestall a step back into the past, where Nippon Kaigi’s reactionaries want to lead the nation. By the same token, observers would be unwise to forget Japan’s unfortunate history of opportunistic politicians successfully manipulating the throne for their own ends.
Walter Hamilton is the author of Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story (NewSouth). He was correspondent of the ABC in Tokyo for many years.