If You Ask Me September 2016

Should the Emperor Abdicate?

Japan wrestles with issues of the monarchy, as the UK did in the 1930s

According to a Kyodo News survey in July, some 86.6% of respondents were in favour of a system that would allow Emperor Akihito of Japan to abdicate. Currently, under the Imperial House Law, which governs the status of the Emperor, there is no legal mechanism for abdication.

Yet in his televised address to the nation on 8 August—only the second time during his reign that he has directly addressed the people—Emperor Akihito hinted broadly that, in due course, he would possibly like to step aside in favour of his son Crown Prince Naruhito.

The address was necessarily ambiguous: the Emperor is a symbol of the nation and is forbidden from involvement in politics. But his sincere and heart-felt message has touched the people and stirred a debate on whether or not the constitution should be amended to allow an abdication.

Akihito became Emperor in 1989 on his father’s death. He has proved to be a popular monarch, readily mixing with the people at times of natural disasters for example. There has been extensive coverage of the Emperor on his knees comforting those who have been left homeless and there is no doubting his compassion. Together with the Empress he has also visited such locations as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as overseas venues to express regret regarding Japan’s wartime history and pledge peace in the future.

But he is now 82 years old and has been treated for prostate cancer and undergone heart surgery. In his August address, he admitted that his age and failing health were of concern to him, and wondered how long he could continue the pace required by his duties as Emperor: “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 question is, what measures should be taken? Should there be a complete overhaul of the part of the constitution that covers imperial status? Or should there be—as some have suggested—an ad-hoc law that applies to the present Emperor alone? A revision of the Imperial House Law could be very time consuming and opponents are concerned that it could open up a debate on other issues, such as whether women should be allowed to take the throne.

As of late August, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration appeared to be in favour of creating a special law that would apply exclusively to the current Emperor, allowing him to hand over the Imperial Throne to Crown Prince Naruhito.

There would appear to be little appetite for a complete overhaul that would permit abdication as in certain European countries such as Spain or the Netherlands, which have seen recent changes of monarchy. And there would appear to be no lessons to be learned from the abdication of King Edward VIII, who gave up the British crown in order to marry the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson. Further, as Sir Hugh Cortazzi—a former British ambassador to Japan—has written, “any suggestion that Japan should follow the precedent set by Pope Benedict [who resigned at 86 due to physical infirmity] would, of course, be anathema to Shinto ritualists”.

Yet abdication is not, in fact, without precedent. A recent Japan Times editorial points out that “roughly half the emperors in Japan’s history are believed to have retired and handed over their position to a younger successor—for a variety of reasons”. Still, there has not been an Imperial abdication since 1817 when Emperor Kokaku stepped down.

According to The Japan Times, one reason imperial abdication was explicitly banned under the Meiji government “is said to have been to avoid the risk of a dual power structure in which a retired emperor continued to effectively control his successor … as happened frequently in mediaeval times”. Under the post-war constitution, however, the Emperor wields no political power. So such behind-the-scenes activity seems highly unlikely.

Thus the debate goes on. But it is clear that the Emperor’s message struck a chord in the hearts of a great majority of the Japanese people who would like to see him able to retire when he himself wishes.