The Emperor’s Abdication: What that Might Mean for Japan

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The current emperor of Japan, Akihito, is known for many things: his warm and personable character, his public expressions of sorrow and remorse for the actions of Japan during the war and his love of jellyfish and goby. However, he sent shockwaves throughout Japan when he expressed his desire to abdicate earlier this year. With his birthday today, perhaps the best gift he could get is to be able to step down. That, or jellyfish.

Who is the Emperor of Japan and what does he do?

Although the emperor has no official political power, he does have several ceremonial and diplomatic ones. He ascended the throne 27 years ago. After he passes away, Akihito will be renamed as Heisei (“Peace everywhere”). He is loved by most people in Japan and is emblematic of the country’s pacifist constitution on a global stage.

The “desire” for abdication

In a rare televised speech in August, the 82-year-old emperor stated: “[…] times when I feel various constraints such as in my physical fitness,” resulted in him being unable to perform the duties asked of him. The speech was largely interpreted as an expression of his wish to abdicate.

Officially, the emperor is not allowed to involve himself in Japanese politics (an adjustment made after the U.S. occupation) and for him to abdicate, the laws must change. Thus, if he were to step down early, it would be considered a breach of the constitution.

Why was it important?

Unfortunately for Akihito, currently the emperor is the emperor until the end of his life. There is no legal way for him to resign and even through a large portion of the population would support it, he has significant political and legal hurdles to cross if he hopes to leave his job peacefully.

As is the case with any political leader who resigns prematurely, shockwaves would be sent throughout the country. For Akihito, a man who symbolically stands at the heart of Japan’s national unity, further questions have already been raised on the future and strength of the imperial system.

A game of thrones (and precedent)

An emperor hasn’t abdicated since 1817 and it is unprecedented in modern Japan. Since it’s never happened before, what needs to be decided is: under what conditions can an emperor be allowed to quit?  For Akihito, health is the primary factor. The fear is that future generations of emperors might assume: “Well, if he can do it… why can’t I?” So beginning the slow unraveling of the institution.

His departure would raise questions on how necessary the position of emperor is and how much political respect it would have if they seem to change on a yearly basis.

Beyond this, with only male heirs being able to inherit the throne, some conservative commentators are worried that Akihito’s departure could re-open discussions on whether females should be allowed to inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne, thereby breaking a 2,600-year-old, male-only line of succession.

Low numbers of young male heirs within the royal family (currently only one below the age of 50) have sparked concerns that, as the pool of potential monarchs gets smaller and smaller, lawmakers may be forced to change the tradition.

Yet another constitutional change

The constitution strictly prohibits emperors from resigning. Poor Akihito can’t catch a break. Abe has created a committee with the express purpose of finding legal ways to allow the emperor to resign, but whenever legal regulations are adjusted — and especially when the constitution must be amended — controversy is always created.

At the moment, the working theory is that a special one-time legislation will be created that is limited to Akihito, which would permit him to abdicate, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to take over. The plan is to try to temper any controversy created through his desire to abdicate while making sure traditions stay intact.

For Abe, Article 9 must wait…

Akihito’s request comes at a critical period, as its timing curtails recent attempts to adjust Article 9 of the constitution by Abe. It is no secret that Abe wants to remove the war-renouncing Article 9, a desire that’s been met with national and international resistance. Among them, could be the emperor, who has previously expressed deep regret over the country’s actions during World War II in contrast with Abe’s less apologetic stance.

Is this a cleverly-timed move to divert political energy away from the constitutional issue, as one South China Morning Post article suggests? Or is the emperor simply just knackered and looking forward to retirement?

In any case, we’re wishing him a happy birthday and — if you’re in Tokyo — head out to the Imperial Palace today for a chance to see him.

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  • Dale Goodwin says:

    Interesting transition from writing about the Emperor stepping down to getting a barb in about Article 9 of the constitution. Last time I checked, it was my impression that while the Emperor could not just step down, a position could be created that would take over much of his duties. This man is beloved (not just liked) accross Japan and it has been that way since he was Crown Prince. The only issue for Japanese politicians is how to come up with a way to do exactly what the emperor wants to do.

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