For the first time in 200 years, a Japanese emperor has expressed a desire to abdicate the throne. Although purposefully vague, the 82-year-old Emperor Akihito implied that he would like to relinquish his position as emperor of Japan after ruling for 27 years. Emperor Akihito is the 125th emperor to hold the Chrysanthemum Throne, and he is head of the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy (1). With his resignation, it would be the first abdication of a Japanese monarch since Emperor Kokaku abdicated the throne in 1817. More importantly, his renouncement of the throne symbolizes the conclusion of the first contemporary imperial reign of Japan.
Mentioned during what was only the second televised broadcast of his reign, Emperor Akihito was not able to openly express his wish to step down; the Japanese emperor is barred from making political statements, as outlined in Japan’s Meiji Constitution (2). The Constitution openly prohibits the imperial family from participating in any form of politics, but the way in which he addressed his subjects directly, purposefully curtailing the government, seems intentionally shocking. The last time an emperor directly addressed the people and sidestepped the government was in 1945, when Emperor Hirohito, Akihito’s father, announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies.
Although official abdication is not legal in Japan, the Emperor has stressed that he believes his age is hampering his ability to rule. Akihito was treated for prostate cancer in 2003, as well as heart surgery in 2012 (3). As a result, he would like his 56-year-old son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to take on the ceremonial position in Japan’s constitutional monarchy, as he believes himself unfit to rule. To Japanese citizens, the survival of the imperial family and system is paramount to the preservation of Japanese culture. Consequently, the imperial lineage is untouchable, especially by politics.
This has the potential to reshape the current Constitution of Japan, as abdicating the throne requires revisions to the Imperial Household Law (4). In order for change to be approved, the revision would have to successfully pass through Japan’s parliament. This would generate a wider debate regarding the relationship between the state and the emperor, the role of the monarchy in modern Japan, and the future of succession law.
Akihito was responsible for steering the Japanese family into the post-WWII period and converting the imperial family into a constitutional monarchy. He has led an unusual lifestyle as an emperor and has always quietly encouraged a pacifist and democratic way of life. In his earlier years, he married a commoner, which served as a representation of the importance of mutual consent and showed a level of equality between the emperor and his subjects. However, his work has also alienated some nationalists and conservatives. The friction between these parties came to a head when Akihito publicly acknowledged a blood relation with Korea in the imperial family that dates back nearly 15 centuries.
Recently, the conservatives and the Emperor have clashed regarding the Akihito’s possible abdication. This maneuver can be interpreted as Emperor Akihito’s way of thwarting the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Liberal Democratic Party, a very right wing group, aims to reinstate the pre-war constitution and increase the power of the emperor (5).
On July 13, NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting agency, announced the Emperor’s abdication wish. This was just a few days after the Liberal Democratic Party defeated their opponents in elections for the Parliament’s upper house. Ultimately, the LDP reached the two-thirds majority needed for the National Diet to present a constitutional revision to a national referendum. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the Emperor’s wish to abdicate is related to the new proposed constitutional revisions. Ultimately, these revisions would be an emblematic abandonment of the postwar principles that Emperor Akihito worked so hard to achieve.
The proposed modifications would make Japan depart from being pacifist in many ways. Most of the party’s suggested changes would modify the emperor’s current role and revert him back to the head of state, as opposed to a purely symbolic leader. Notably, it dispenses a clause that prevents Japan from entering into war. Most importantly, the new draft by the LDP omits a section about the universality of human rights and also reiterates that human rights should not “infringe the public interest and public order,” while also stressing respect for the national anthem (6).
It has even been suggested that the NHK was actually coerced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to report on the Emperor’s desire to abdicate the throne (7). Since there is no current law about abdication, a constitutional revision and amendment would need to be created. As such, the Prime Minister’s administration and the Liberal Democratic Party would be able to push through their other desired amendments. Alternatively, it has also been suggested that Emperor Akihito is very aware and bothered by Abe and his administration and is therefore trying to halt his attempts. It has been insinuated that he is trying to deter the Prime Minister and delay his progress until Abe’s term expires in 2018. In raising a constitutional issue that is more important than the one the Liberal Democratic Party is pushing, he is applying his seniority to help maintain a pacifist Japan, while asserting his claim to being the first truly modern emperor of Japan.
Ultimately, Emperor Akihito has a strong commitment to international cooperation and peace, and if he is successful in his attempt to abdicate, he will destroy the perception of emperors as “holy and sacred.” Instead, he will have proven that emperors are also subject to the democratic ideals of the post war world.
(1) "Japan's Emperor Akihito Hints at Wish to Abdicate." BBC News. BBC, 8 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Sept. 2016.
(2) "Japan's Emperor Akihito Hints He Will Abdicate." BBC News. BBC, 8 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Sept. 2016.
(3) Hanna, Jason, and Yoko Wakatsuki. "Japanese Emperor Akihito considering Abdication, Broadcaster Says." CNN. Cable News Network, 14 July 2016. Web. 02 Sept. 2016.
(4) Perry, Juliet. "Japan: What Happens If the Emperor Steps Down?" CNN. Cable News Network, 8 Aug. 2016. Web. 02 Sept. 2016.
(5) Sala, Ilaria Maria. "The Real Reason Japan's Emperor Wants to Abdicate." South China Morning Post. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd., 14 Aug. 2016. Web. 02 Sept. 2016.
(6) Shipley, David. "Emperor Akihito Plays Defense on Japan's Constitution." Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 10 Aug. 2016. Web. 02 Sept. 2016.
(7) Kato, Norihiro. "The Emperor and the Prime Minister." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2016. Web. 02 Sept. 2016.
Image: © Fotokon | Dreamstime.com - Emperor of Japan
Alanna Schenk is a student studying International Relations with a minor in Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Southern California. Her primary interests are in ecological security and human security, specifically related to the regions of Northern Europe and Africa. She is particularly interested in how geospatial technologies can be used to study and offer suggestions for humanitarian intervention and issues of human security. Specifically, she fascinated by how satellite and remote sensing can be used to improve documentation capabilities and research across the fields of human rights and humanitarian intervention. Furthermore, she is a research assistant for the Lab on Non-Democratic Politics at USC and has also spent time conducting field research in the Arctic. On campus, Alanna is a fellow with the Levan Institute of Humanities and Ethics, a Senator for the Undergraduate Student Government, and a member with USC's Teaching International Relations Program.