Emperor Akihito Makes His Feelings Plain
In a video message that was broadcast across Japan, Emperor Akihito expressed a desire to abdicate in favor of his son Crown Prince Naruhito. I have watched that video message many times, and also read through the transcript. Over the nearly half century I have spent as a political journalist, I have heard many addresses delivered by leaders, but I had never heard a message delivered so succinctly. Perhaps the reason is that it was not couched in the sort of flowery and opaque language typical of politicians.
In the case of my own household, when my father passed the age of 80 he decided to transfer ownership of his house to his son. No one would oppose such a decision in a normal household, but in the case of the emperor the situation is not so simple. In fact, Emperor Akihito’s desire to abdicate raises major issues, including those intertwined with the debate over constitutional reform.
Although it would seem the obvious approach is to frankly accept the emperor’s request to abdicate, it is apparently not so easy. The government aims to set up an expert panel to consider the issue of abdication. However, judging from the members of the panel, a fruitful outcome of the discussion seems unlikely. I suspect it will largely be a waste of time.
Public Opinion Overwhelmingly Backs Abdication
I have my own memories of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. At the time of their marriage on April 10, 1959, I was a third-year student at a junior high school in the western suburbs of Tokyo. I think it was a few days after their marriage that I heard that the royal couple would be visiting the Musashi Imperial Graveyard in nearby Hachiōji. I can’t recall if they were traveling in a horse-drawn carriage or an open car, but in any case I skipped classes to go there and have a look.
Ever since that time I have felt a personal affinity for the emperor, who is just around 10 years older than me. Emperor Hirohito, the father of the current emperor, famously issued his “humanity declaration” (ningen sengen) after World War II, denying the concept of the emperor as a living god. So, considering that the emperor, as a human being, grows old like the rest of us, most people think it natural that he should be allowed to retire.
The problem, however, is that legally speaking the emperor and imperial family are not exactly human beings—or at least not citizens. For instance, they are not included in Japan’s family register (koseki) system, being listed instead under the imperial family record, and for that reason do not have the right to vote nor to live wherever they please. On top of that, they do not have freedom of speech, so basically they lack fundamental human rights. So it is not a simple matter of accepting the emperor’s wish and allowing him to enjoy a leisurely retirement.
What moved me about the feelings expressed by Emperor Akihito in his video message was the sense of his struggle to find the ideal stance to take in his role as “national symbol.” In his remarks, the emperor stated, “I have felt that my travels to various places throughout Japan, in particular, to remote places and islands, are important acts of the Emperor as the symbol of the State and I have carried them out in that spirit.” I was certainly touched by the many trips the emperor has taken recently to visit disaster sites or war memorials, but the video message seems to have surprised quite a few members of the Japanese public by revealing the serious level of thought and resolve with which he treated such visits.
According to a public-opinion poll conducted by Kyodo News, 85.7% of those surveyed approved of the emperor’s desire to abdicate. And this poll was carried out before his video message, so the approval rating is likely to be even higher now. It is a level of support that the government cannot ignore. So the question becomes: What can be done to make it possible?
Abdication Issue Bothersome for Abe
Would the abdication right only be granted to the current emperor, or would it be a permanent right? Depending on the answer, it may become necessary to revise the Constitution. It seems to me, though, that Emperor Akihito, who has become a sort of symbol of liberalism in Japan, would not be in favor of revising the Constitution in any way. His repeated use of the phrase “symbol of the State” in his video message can be read as a rejection of the Liberal Democratic Party’s draft constitutional amendment, which calls for the emperor to be specified as the “head of state.”
Granted, the debate over abdication may not be directly related to the personal wishes of Emperor Akihito. Yet, if I consider what my own situation might be like in ten years’ time, when I am the same age the Emperor is now, I am not certain at all that I will be healthy enough to continue working. Even if his fundamental human rights are not recognized, I should think that at the very least his public appearances could be limited to just two or three a year so that he can relax a bit during his remaining years.
Just as Emperor Akihito said in his message that he wants to “continue to be with the people at all times,” many people in Japan would like to prioritize his own request to abdicate. Considering Emperor Akihito’s age, the abdication issue is not something that can be put off to a later date. Rather, he should be allowed to retire as soon as possible.
Conservatives seem to be largely opposed to granting the right of abdication. Although right-wing forces are currently backing opposition to abdication, the situation is a bit peculiar. That is to say, now that the government of Abe Shinzō has become so strong that the ruling party dominates the political landscape, liberalism in Japan is more or less dead. So I think it could be said that the most respected liberal in Japan today is Emperor Akihito.
Perhaps that accounts for why the Abe government finds the abdication issue so unwelcome and troublesome. The discomfort that Prime Minister Abe and other top officials feel about this issue is written on their faces.
(Originally published in Japanese on September 30, 2016. Banner photo: Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are seen off by a crowd at Shōnai Airport in Yamagata Prefecture, before flying back to Tokyo on September 12, 2016. © Jiji.)
Political journalist. Born in 1944 in Heilongjiang province in China. Joined the newspaper company Nikkei after graduating from Waseda University’s School of Political Science and Economics, with a degree in political economy. Published works include Kokka to seiji: Kiki no jidai no shidōsha zō. (State and Politics: Profiles of Leaders in an Age of Crisis) and Shimakura Chiyoko to iu jinsei (The Life of Shimakura Chiyoko).