On Monday, 8 August 2016, the Emperor of Japan made a rare televised address to the Japanese people. In his 28 years on the Chrysanthemum Throne, this is only the second time that the Japanese people have been addressed through mass media by Emperor Akihito, the first being in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns of 11 March 2011.
Indeed, yesterday’s public broadcast of the emperor’s message was only the third such address in all of Japanese history, the first being his father Hirohito’s radio announcement in August 1945 that Japan, “enduring the unendurable,” would surrender unconditionally to the Allies and put an end to World War II. So given the historical gravitas of yesterday’s address, then, what did His Majesty have to say?
It turns out that the 82-year-old monarch is interested in retiring.
In Japan, the reigning emperor is never referred to by name; he is simply “the Emperor” (Tennou, 天皇, “heavenly sovereign“). He won’t get his own imperial name until after he passes away, at which time he will be posthumously named after the era of his reign. In the West, however, we know the current monarch as Emperor Akihito. By all appearances, Akihito is a kindly, scholarly man who cares deeply about the Japanese people, and is personally committed to the pacifist stance embodied in Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution. No longer considered descendants of the gods wielding divine authority, the role of the post-war emperors has been to serve, according to the post-war constitution, as a “symbol of the State and of the unity of the People.”
To that end, the current emperor has spent his reign, known in Japan as the Heisei Era (平成, achieving peace), traveling the country and working to bring the monarchy closer to the Japanese people. In an example that the Japanese people found particularly moving, after the tragic events of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko went north to the affected regions to personally give comfort to those affected. They spoke directly with the people whose lives had been torn apart, sitting on the floor with them, ensuring them of Japan’s good will and support in their plight. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any other Japanese emperor being so accessible to his subjects.
Abroad, the emperor has taken on the role of peace envoy for a country whose elected leaders often seem perversely incapable of doing so. Conservative politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, continually anger and annoy their Asian neighbors by promoting reinterpretation of Japan’s role in the war, watering down previous apologies for military aggression, and softening the interpretation of Article 9.
Meanwhile, Emperor Akihito has made historic visits to China, Palau, the Philippines, and other nations that suffered under the yoke of Japanese imperialism in the early 20th Century. While representing Japan abroad, the emperor always commemorates not just Japan’s war dead but local casualties as well, and emphasizes his nation’s ardent desire to never again resort to war.
The Japanese people tend to revere all of their sovereigns, but through his character and his actions, Emperor Akihito has become an especially beloved figure. Japan’s national public broadcaster, NHK, reported nearly a month ago on rumors that the emperor would like to step down , although those rumors were denied at the time.
So what is so special about the emperor wanting to abdicate the throne and enjoy a quiet retirement that it requires a history-making television appearance? Well, as it turns out, there is no legal or constitutional provision for an emperor to retire. The laws governing the imperial household are silent on matters related to abdication, simply specifying that each emperor occupies the throne until his eventual death.
In the emperor’s pre-recorded speech, it is telling that he never mentions abdication directly. He discusses his age and his recent health issues. (He has undergone open heart surgery and successful treatment for prostate cancer.) Akihito says that he foresees a time in the near future when his health will begin to fail, and he will be unable to fulfill his duties as the symbol of Japan with his “whole being.” Japanese law does allow for a regent to assume some or all imperial functions in the event that a sitting emperor is a minor or has become incapacitated by injury or disease. But neither is the case with Emperor Akihito, who stresses that even under a regent, the emperor remains the emperor, even if he is unable to properly perform his duties. He clearly dislikes this option.
However, in the course of his brief ten-minute speech, Akihito never recommends a solution to his dilemma, and the reason for this lies in the post-war constitution.
Under the Allied occupation of Japan (1945 – 1952), the pre-war Meiji Constitution was jettisoned and a new governing document was drawn up by General Douglas MacArthur’s military government. Articles 1 through 8 lay out the role of the Japanese emperor, specifying that he is to have no official authority whatsoever. The role of the emperor, according to the so-called Peace Constitution (平和憲法, Heiwa Kenpou), is that of a ceremonial figurehead.
It is therefore unconstitutional for the emperor to take a public position on any matter of law or policy. It is for this reason that Emperor Akihito refrained from suggesting that Imperial Household Law be amended to permit him to step down.
It is interesting to note that, while current law requires a sitting emperor to remain on the throne for life, this was decidedly not always the case. It has been nearly 200 years since Emperor Kokaku abdicated in 1817, the last emperor to do so. But before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 returned practical authority from the shogun to the emperor after 265 years, more than half of Japanese emperors abdicated the throne to their chosen heirs and retired to pastoral pursuits or quiet study at a Buddhist monastery. One can easily imagine Akihito, as emperor emeritus, pursuing his lifelong interest in marine biology in the palace laboratory and leaving the burdens of the throne to the current Crown Prince Naruhito, age 56. It seems odd, then, that modern law is silent on such a possibility.
The reason may be that the option to abdicate could subject an emperor to the very forces of politics from which the post-war constitution intends to isolate him. He might, for example, be pressured to step down by some extremist bloc in the National Diet, or by an overly ambitious member of the imperial family. The failure to mention abdication in current law may in fact be a safety measure rather than an oversight.
It is in this light that pundits are discussing a possible one-time legislative act, permitting Akihito to abdicate but not establishing a mechanism for future emperors to do the same. If pressure from lawmakers or family members is really a concern — which frankly, given the emperor’s ceremonial status, seems farfetched — it may make sense to handle potential abdications on a case-by-case basis, so that the circumstances of each instance can be thoroughly examined for the taint of political influence. Following the emperor’s recorded address, Prime Minister Abe said, “Upon reflecting how he handles his official duty and so on, his age and the current situation of how he works, I do respect the heavy responsibility the emperor must be feeling and I believe we need to think hard about what we can do.”
The rules of imperial succession have been publicly debated as recently as 2005, when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi set up a panel to study whether Imperial Household Law should be revised to permit female heirs to ascend to the throne. As it stands, the law specifies that the throne passes only to male heirs, but at that time there hadn’t been a male child born into the imperial family in some 40 years. The panel made a positive recommendation, in line with the 70% to 80% support being expressed by the Japanese polity, but the horrifying thought of an imperial daughter claiming the throne threw the right wing of Japanese politics into an apoplectic state. Conveniently, Prince Akishino and his wife produced a son in 2006, young Prince Hisahito, and the whole repulsive idea of lady emperors was shelved.
Mr. Abe is believed to have been among those who opposed female succession, and it would certainly seem to fit his worldview. So I think we can count on him to also prefer the one-off solution to Emperor Akihito’s problem, rather than a public examination of the entirety of succession law. This is despite a nationwide survey by Kyodo News this month in which 85.7% of respondents said they believed abdication should be a legal option for the current emperor as well as his successors.
To me, as an American, this whole thing is completely fascinating. For one thing, we don’t have royalty in the United States. In fact, opposition to it is kind of what kicked our whole country off in the first place. It’s our thing. We backed off of monarchs when they were still cool, like reverse political hipsters.
But while George III may have spoiled the concept for us at home, I find the idea of royalty weirdly appealing in other countries. Specifically, I think “emperor” sounds like a pretty sweet gig, figurehead or no. I mean, what other job title could possibly look more impressive on a résumé, right?
On the other hand, a job — no matter how incredibly cool — that you can’t quit without an act of the legislature sounds extremely creepy. In the United States, it seems like something that would violate the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. You know, the one prohibiting slavery and indentured servitude. So, I guess you take the bad with the good….
It is certain that the Diet will soon begin looking into options, if they haven’t already begun. One way or another, I believe Japan can find a way for Emperor Akihito to collect his gold watch. But as much as I hope they can get a move on, the wheels of Japanese bureaucracy turn slowly at the best of times. I just hope the octogenarian monarch finds out what his future holds while he is still able to enjoy it.
Update: In January 2017, it was announced that a one-time provision will be made to allow the Emperor of Japan to abdicate the throne. In December 2017, the date of His Majesty’s abdication was set as 30 April 2019. He will be 85 years old.