WALTER HAMILTON. An Emperor Asks to Step Down

Jan 6, 2017

In August 2016, Japan’s Emperor Akihito took the highly unusual step of asking publically to be relieved of his duties – to be able to abdicate.  The government is still mulling over its response many months later. The article below is a repost from August 9, 2016. 

The key point made by Japan’s Emperor Akihito in his ‘abdication address’ on Monday was that he regards being emperor as a job––not a sacred possession or an abstraction––and he no longer feels fully up to the task.

In his ten-minute, pre-recorded, televised address, the 82-year-old monarch adhered strictly to the post-war definition of his role as set out in the 1947 constitution adopted during the Allied occupation of Japan: he was ‘the symbol of the state’, and, in his view, this meant performing practical tasks, as he put it, ‘to stand by the people and listen to their voices’. He did not use the word abdication nor indicate when he wished to step down––to do so would be to presume powers that do not reside with him but solely with the elected government. Again, his careful adherence to the circumscribed powers of the emperor under the present constitution was conspicuous.

Emperor Akihito has consistently demonstrated his loyalty to the 1947 constitution, enacted when he was 14 years old––unlike Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and members of his conservative government who regard the document as an alien ‘American-made’ thing not reflective of Japanese cultural values.

The emperor’s statement, unprecedented in Japan’s modern era, used somewhat vague, roundabout language, but his intention was perfectly clear. He was feeling his age and concerned about his health: ‘When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now.’ The emperor as ‘symbol of the state’, he said, needed to be able to respond to new situations and contribute to the public good.

Furthermore, when an emperor died, he went on, addressing this point with unusual candour, the many court and traditional ceremonies, and the long mourning period, put a heavy strain on the system, interrupting the continuity of imperial service. It was better, he implied, that he should not die in harness but hand over before then. He asked for the public’s understanding.

‘In a nation and in a world which are constantly changing, I have continued to think to this day about how the Japanese imperial family can put its traditions to good use in the present age and be an active and inherent part of society, responding to the expectations of the people.’

One possible course, when an emperor is prevented by age or illness from fulfilling duties, is to establish a regency, but Akihito suggested this was not ideal, saying: ‘I think it is not possible to continue reducing perpetually the emperor’s acts in matters of state and his duties as the symbol of the state.’

The Imperial Household Act does not at present provide for abdication; the law would have to be amended, and this is what Akihito has effectively asked the Abe government to do. So far, Abe has remained non-committal, saying only that the emperor’s remarks would be taken ‘seriously’.

Emperor Akihito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne following the long, slow death of his father, Hirohito, in 1989. With Empress Michiko, he has successfully carved out a fresh identity for the imperial family: modest in style, comparatively free of pomp and ceremony, and closer to the concerns of ordinary Japanese.

After the twin disasters of the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku in 2012, the royal couple travelled several times to the devastated areas to comfort the bereaved and homeless. They did the same again after the Kumamoto earthquakes this year. These activities were a strain on the ageing couple.

Akihito has been treated for prostate cancer and had heart bypass surgery. His face is now permanently swollen apparently from the effects of medication. Reportedly, he first raised his abdication idea among family members and aides about five years ago. He resisted the empress’s suggestions that a regent be appointed to take over his duties because he felt the person performing the role of ‘symbol of the state’ should be the emperor.

Assuming the government allows him to step down, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, would ascend the throne. The fact that Naruhito does not have a male heir may reopen debate over whether the law should be amended to also allow women and matrilineal heirs to inherit the throne.

A Kyodo opinion poll has found more than 85 percent of Japanese support allowing imperial abdication. Some conservative scholars, however, have shown resistance, even questioning the emperor’s right to express his feelings as he has. Political sources say the process of considering the options could be drawn out over many months. There is a possibility the Abe government might try to use the opportunity to redefine the role of the emperor through a constitutional amendment; the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has a long-standing proposal to do so. That, however, would likely be seen as an attempt to politicise the issue, disrespect the overriding need for an old man to be allowed a well-earned rest. Now that it will be preoccupied working out an acceptable response to the emperor’s historic outspokenness, the government, in fact, could find it more difficult to progress other controversial constitutional changes it has been contemplating for some time.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.

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