Abdication: The Emperor’s Wish and Prospects for Its Realization


It has recently been reported that Emperor Akihito, now 82, wishes to abdicate within the next few years. The government is expected to soon start seriously deliberating this issue with a view to realizing the emperor’s wish.

This article was written prior to the August 8 video message by Emperor Akihito.—Ed.

Favorable Reactions to the Initial Report

On July 13, the 7 pm television news on public broadcaster NHK led with the story that Emperor Akihito had indicated his wish to abdicate. At the time I was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, with fellow researchers at a session where we were taking turns reading aloud from (surviving fragments of) the diary of Heian-period Emperor Murakami (926–67). I learned the news from a text message my daughter sent to me on my mobile phone. I was truly astonished.

Soon I was receiving a series of phone calls and email messages from media organs asking me for comments, and as I was heading home I got a request from NHK to come to their main studio in Shibuya. After repeatedly reading the entire text of the NHK news report and receiving an explanation from the person in charge, I came to the conclusion that the contents of the story could be taken as being a fair representation of the emperor’s actual wish. At the studio I answered a number of questions, and some of what I said was reported in the morning news on NHK the following day:

[His Majesty] has raised what is the most fundamental and greatest issue for continuation of the institution of the emperor as the symbol [of the state and of the unity of the people] as stipulated under the present Constitution of Japan.

The institution of the imperial house in modern times was defined under the Meiji-era Imperial House Law [1889], succeeded by the post–World War II Imperial House Law [1946]. But aging and the increase in longevity have been progressing in a manner that was not foreseen at the time, and so we must soon reform the arrangements [amend the provisions of the law] that do not match the realities of the twenty-first century. We require deliberations with a view to several decades from now. That said, any reform will have both positive and negative sides, so it’s to be hoped that efforts will be made to come up with optimal conclusions based on careful investigation of both these sides.

Checking six major newspapers from the following morning through the next few days, I found that their articles about this topic, while expressing surprise at the emperor’s wish to abdicate, were virtually all positive in their reaction. Kazaoka Noriyuki, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, publicly said he was not involved in the matter, but he did not deny the main thrust of the report, so it appears that it is substantially accurate.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō declared, “I have no comment, given the nature of the matter.” But Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide had previously revealed that the Abe administration was considering measures in response to the declining number of imperial family members, suggesting that the government was undertaking to address problem points in the Imperial House Law. Leading members of the ruling and opposition parties also made positive comments in connection with the emperor’s reported wish, saying that if this wish were confirmed, it would be necessary to work toward its realization.

I subsequently reviewed the full text of NHK’s report as posted on its website (dated July 19), and I was honestly impressed by the indication that His Majesty’s wish was one that had already been considered for some years by the concerned parties and those involved and that the relevant content was detailed and looked several years into the future. Below I quote this NHK report in 10 sections, interspersed with my comments, including simple annotations and some of my own views. (The emphasis added in the quotes is mine.)

1. NHK has learned that Emperor Akihito has conveyed to Imperial Household Agency officials his wish to abdicate and hand over his position to Crown Prince Naruhito. The emperor reportedly desires to abdicate his position within the next several years, and arrangements are being made for the emperor himself to reveal his sentiments broadly inside and outside Japan.

The Imperial House Law provides only for the emperor to reign for life, but according to this report, Emperor Akihito has made his wish to abdicate known not only to his family but also to Imperial Household Agency officials. The agency’s denial of involvement is no more than a move by the emperor’s entourage to leave distance in consideration of the fact that realization of the emperor’s wish involves revision of the Imperial Household Law, while the Constitution provides that the emperor “shall not have powers related to government.” So even if the emperor himself “reveal[s] his sentiments broadly inside and outside Japan,” it is considered unlikely that he will refer explicitly to abdication.

Three Types of Imperial Duties

2. On the passing of Emperor Shōwa [Hirohito, deceased January 7, 1989], Emperor Akihito, at age 55, became the first emperor to accede to the throne as the national symbol under the current Constitution [adopted in 1946]. He has continued to respond to new social demands, seeking a role for the imperial house in keeping with modern times, and the volume of the official duties undertaken by the emperor has become much greater than during Emperor Shōwa’s reign.

The current Constitution of Japan [Chapter I, The Emperor; Article 1] stipulates, “The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people.” Since his accession to the throne, Emperor Akihito has constantly pondered the role of the symbolic emperor and has “continued to respond to new social demands, seeking a role for the imperial house in keeping with modern times.”

3. In addition to the acts in matters of state stipulated by the Constitution, Emperor Akihito considers the duties of the emperor to include symbolic activities that are appropriate for his official involvement, and he has undertaken a variety of official duties, including attendance at ceremonies and visits to disaster areas. Also, believing it important for the emperor’s official duties to be performed equitably, he has made virtually no major changes in his official duties even now, at age 82.

The principal duties of the emperor (his official duties, broadly defined) are of three types: (1) acts in matters of state as stipulated in Articles 6 and 7 of the Constitution, (2) official duties considered appropriate for him to perform as the national symbol, and (3) court rituals at which he prays for the state and the people.

Duties of type 1 include the appointment of the prime minister and of the chief justice of the Supreme Court as designated by the Diet and the cabinet, respectively, along with numerous ceremonial duties performed with the advice and approval of the cabinet, such as promulgation of laws, convocation of the Diet, awarding of honors, attestation of diplomatic documents, and receiving foreign ambassadors. Type 3 duties include dozens of major rites that the emperor performs in formal Japanese attire at the three palace sanctuaries (Kashiko-dokoro, Kōrei-den, and Shin-den) and at Shinka-den, the site of the Niiname-sai harvest celebration. Type 2 duties include attendance at three major annual events held around the country on a rotating basis—the  National Sports Festival, National Tree-Planting Festival, and National Meeting for the Healthy Ocean—and an increased number of visits to memorial ceremonies and to disaster areas. The emperor also plays a major role in international goodwill activities, welcoming a constant stream of visitors from abroad, hosting events for foreign ambassadors, and visiting foreign countries in response to invitations.

As a result, the emperor has almost no time off during the year. Even while he is at the Imperial Palace, he is reportedly absorbed in studying about and preparing for his expected visitors and planned travel destinations. Believing that all of these activities are important, he continues to devote all his energy to conducting each of them equitably.

A Decision Motivated by Advancing Age

4. Meanwhile, at a press conference before his eighty-second birthday, the emperor frankly recognized that his age was advancing and he was making mistakes: ‘I am beginning to feel my age, and there were times when I made some mistakes at events. It is my intention to minimize such incidents by continuing to do the best I can when carrying out each and every event.’ . . . Those involved sense that the emperor is troubled by frustration and stress over the prospect that he may in the near future become unable to present what he considers to be the proper figure as the national symbol. Aside from the sheer number of his official duties, the emperor seems to feel most burdened by the very fact that he is the national symbol. And they have said they think abdication may be the only solution.

The identity of “those involved” (presumably one or more sources within the Imperial Household Agency) is not officially on record, but this person or persons evidently thought it necessary to inform the general public of the fact that Emperor Akihito, who shaped the current figure that the emperor should present in his symbolic role, is concerned that this symbolic figure will be lost if he becomes incapable of embodying it due to his advancing age.

5. This wish has reportedly been accepted by Empress Michiko, Crown Prince Naruhito, and Fumihito, Prince Akishino. It is said that Emperor Akihito indicated this sentiment about five years ago and has maintained the same thinking ever since then.

With an eye on the future, since about five years ago Emperor Akihito, who has this sort of ideal regarding the symbolic emperor, has been consistently indicating his wish to abdicate, and it has been revealed that his consort and two sons have accepted this sentiment.

A System Premised on Lifetime Reigns

6. Abdication is not recognized under the present imperial house system. Upon the demise of an emperor, his successor accedes to the throne automatically in accordance with the order of succession; the emperor is not able to resign from his position during his lifetime. Under this system, if the emperor is unable to perform his acts in matters of state because of disease or other reasons, a regent may be named to serve as a substitute; also, in cases such as the emperor’s temporary physical indisposition or foreign travel, his performance of acts in matters of state is temporarily delegated to the crown prince or another member of the imperial family.

The current Constitution and Imperial House Law both assume that the emperor will reign for life, with the provision for establishment of a regency in such cases as when he is affected with a serious disease from which he will be unable to recover. And under a law promulgated in 1964, the emperor’s performance of acts in matters of state can be temporarily delegated to the crown prince or another member of the imperial family.

7. The former Imperial House Law, which was adopted in the middle of the Meiji era [in 1889] under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, provided for succession to the throne only upon the emperor’s demise. One reason was that there had been times when emperors had been forced to step down, resulting in political tumult. The same provision was included in the current Imperial House Law adopted after the end of World War II. The Imperial Household Agency has explained the absence of a provision allowing a living emperor to abdicate as being partly out of concern over the possibility of arbitrary abdication.

Both the Meiji-era and post–World War II versions of the Imperial House Law provided for succession to the throne only when an emperor passed away because it was feared that the abdications by living emperors in earlier ages had been forced or arbitrary.

Two Points for Revision of the Law

8. One conceivable approach to allowing abdication to happen would be to regularize it through revision of the Imperial House Law. It is also quite conceivable that, even without regularization, a law could be created specially to allow the realization of Emperor Akihito’s wish. Various issues should be considered, such as when abdication by a living emperor is to be accepted, but in any case, it will be necessary for the matter to be submitted to the Diet.

The straightforward approach would be to revise Article 4 of the Imperial House Law to regularize abdication, but it is also conceivable that a special law could be drafted to apply just to this one case. In either case, the Diet will need to deliberate the issue.

9. Under the Imperial House Law, the first in the line of imperial succession is the eldest son of the emperor. If Crown Prince Naruhito were to succeed to the throne in Emperor Akihito’s place, his brother, Fumihito, Prince Akishino, would become first in the line of succession, but he would not become the crown prince. . . . Accordingly, if deliberation on the emperor’s abdication commences, the positioning of Prince Akishino will immediately become a subject for consideration.

Article 1 of the existing Imperial House Law stipulates, “The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage,”(*1) and Article 2 stipulates the order of succession: (1) the eldest son of the emperor, (2) the eldest son of the emperor's eldest son, (3) other descendants of the eldest son of the emperor, (4) the second son of the emperor and his descendants, (5) other descendants of the emperor, (6) brothers of the emperor and their descendants, and (7) uncles of the emperor and their descendants; in the latter two cases precedence goes to the senior line and to the senior member within each degree (set of siblings). The basic assumption is that there will be an imperial heir in the direct line of eldest sons, and Article 8 provides that if the imperial heir is the emperor’s eldest son, he is titled kōtaishi (crown prince); if there is no kōtaishi (that is, if the emperor’s eldest son predeceases him) and the heir is the eldest son of the emperor’s eldest son, he is titled kōtaison. But if Crown Prince Naruhito accedes to the throne and his brother, Fumihito, Prince Akishino, becomes first in the line of succession, the existing law has no provision for titling him as the imperial heir—in other words, there will be no crown prince. So this article will inevitably require revision.

Source (current titles and names): http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/e-about/genealogy/koseizu.html

A Change of Reigns in 2020?

10. [precedes section 9 in the original text] If the crown prince succeeds to the throne and becomes the new emperor, the current era name, “Heisei,” will be replaced by a new era name. This is because the Era Name Law provides for the era name to be changed when there is an imperial succession. According to Imperial Household Agency sources, Emperor Akihito wishes to abdicate within a few years.

If the emperor abdicates before Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games four years from now, the games will be held with Japan having begun a new era and Crown Prince Naruhito having become the emperor.

Since the Meiji era (1868–1912), Japan has followed a “one reign, one era name” system, and this practice became law with the adoption of the Era Name Law, promulgated in 1978. So if the current emperor steps down and the crown prince accedes to the throne, a new era name will be adopted by cabinet order and replace the current one in a single stroke.

The NHK report boldly hypothesizes that the emperor’s wish to abdicate “within a few years” could be realized four years from now, suggesting that the upcoming Tokyo Olympics might be held with a new emperor on the throne and new era name in use.

Contrary Opinions

Above we have confirmed the important issues that can be gleaned from the original NHK report. In addition, Emperor Akihito is scheduled to reveal his sentiments directly on August 8. Below I will briefly set forth my ideas about what should be done to realize the emperor’s wish.

First, however, I should note that a fair number of people responded to the original July 13 report with contrary opinions based on preoccupation with principles. For example, in an article published in Sankei Shimbun on July 16, University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Kobori Keiichirō declared, “I feel grave apprehension that venturing at this point to create a precedent for allowing the emperor to abdicate will lead to the de facto destruction of the national polity. . . . It would be best to get through the situation by establishing a regency.”

Also, the September issue of the magazine Will, published on July 26, carried an article by Nihon University Professor Momochi Akira, who favors making the emperor Japan’s head of state (restoring his autonomy), but who wrote, “For the cabinet to be bound by the ‘private’ statements of the emperor would go against the system of constitutional monarchy. . . . If absolutely necessary, freeing His Majesty from his heavy duties by establishing a regency would match the intent of the law and also be in line with His Majesty’s sentiments.”

Article 16 of the Imperial House Law provides, “In case the Emperor is affected with a serious disease, mentally or physically, or there is a serious hindrance and [he] is unable to perform his acts in matters of state, a Regency shall be instituted by decision of the Imperial House Council.” But instituting a regency by reason of the emperor’s old age would surely not “match the intent of the law” in the case of Emperor Akihito, who is still lively in his eighties.

Moreover, according to the July 13 NHK report, Emperor Akihito believes that the emperor’s position should be held by someone who can fully carry out the required duties of the national symbol as stipulated in the Constitution, and up to now he has devoted all his energy to the performance of the emperor’s heavy load of duties, as set forth in my comment following section 3 of the report as quoted above. He has not moved to have his duties reduced or entirely delegated, and it seems that even now his wish is not to be freed of his heavy duties and spend the rest of his life in ease, so instituting a regency would not be “in line with His Majesty’s sentiments.”

The Process for Considering Revision of the Imperial House Law.

In this light, the only proper response is to take Emperor Akihito’s reported wish seriously and undertake to realize it. As noted in my comments following section 8 above, whether this is done through revision of the Imperial House Law or through adoption of special legislation, the matter will need to be submitted to the Diet. This may well be preceded by establishment of a council by the government. As the NHK report noted, “The government has previously established expert councils to deliberate possible revisions to the imperial house system, such as expansion of the scope of eligibility for the imperial succession and the establishment of new princely houses through female lines of descent. It seems likely that a similar procedure will be adopted in this case.”

In the postwar period, when the government has moved to adopt new legislation revising existing laws, it has often solicited the opinions of experts both in favor and opposed to the proposed changes. In 2005 an advisory panel was established by the chief cabinet secretary to consider revision of the Imperial House Law, and in 2012 the chief cabinet secretary held expert hearings concerning the imperial house system; in both cases I was invited to express my opinions.

However, these occasions allow only for the participants to briefly express their views with regard to the matters under consideration; they do not allow discussions among the participants aimed at reaching points of agreement. On the contrary, they are liable to highlight the differences between those in favor and those opposed and lead to a more pronounced split in public opinion. If an expert panel is established again this time, I hope that both the government officials and the participating experts, learning from the above two cases, will adopt a shared recognition that realizing Emperor Akihito’s wish is the major premise and that they will work to make the council a forum for constructive sharing of comments on the problem points related to this objective.

The Imperial House Council as the Best Forum

In my opinion, for deliberation of an important matter involving the role of the imperial house, centering on the emperor, who is the subject of Chapter I of the Constitution, rather than turning to a temporary advisory panel set up by the government, the approach that matches the essence of the matter best and is also the most practical is to reach a consensus through discussions in the Imperial House Council, the top organ established on a permanent basis under Chapter 5 of the Imperial House Law.

Composition of the Imperial House Council

Imperial house Adult male or female imperial family members 2 persons
Legislative branch Speaker and vice speaker of the House of Representatives 2 persons
President and vice president of the House of Councillors 2 persons
Executive branch Prime minister and grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency 2 persons
Judicial branch Chief justice and another justice of the Supreme Court 2 persons

The Imperial House Council replaces the Imperial Family Council (consisting of the adult male members of the imperial family) of the old Imperial House Law. It is a permanent organ consisting of 10 persons as stipulated in Article 28 of the current Imperial House Law: two imperial family members, the speaker and vice speaker of the House of Representatives (legislative branch), the president and vice president of the House of Councillors (legislative branch), the prime minister and the grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency (executive branch), and the chief justice and one other justice of the Supreme Court (judicial branch). According to Article 19 of the law, the prime minister presides over the council.

This council thus brings together two representatives of the imperial family (currently Prince Akishino and Princess Hitachi) and eight representatives of the three branches of government. It can surely deliberate the matter carefully, with the former two having listened to the wishes of Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito and the latter eight having gauged the wishes of the general public (with the speaker of the House of Representatives and president of the House of Councillors being selected from the ruling parties and the vice speaker and vice president of the two houses being selected from the opposition parties).

Of course, since the current Imperial House Law is based on the assumption that the emperor will reign for life, it does not envisage deliberation of abdication. But it does provide in Article 3 that the order of succession defined in Article 2 “may be changed by decision of the Imperial House Council and in accordance with the order stipulated in the preceding Article.” Applying this provision, it should be enough to supplement Article 4,  “Upon the demise of the Emperor, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne,” which assumes that the emperor will reign for life, by inserting the following highlighted phrase: “Upon the demise of the Emperor or the abdication of the Emperor based on deliberation by the Imperial House Council, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne.”

In this way, even if the current case of abdication is handled through special legislation, it would be possible to clarify the policy for subsequent cases. Properly speaking, while giving precedence to the existing arrangement of lifetime reigns, abdication should be added as a new option—not, however, as something left up just to the emperor’s free will but as a matter to be submitted to the impartial Imperial House Council for careful consideration.

When the original Imperial House Law was adopted in the Meiji era and when the current law was adopted after World War II, abdication was seen as a problem because the abdications in premodern times, of which there were some 60 cases, had frequently been carried out arbitrarily and with political motivations, with fights resulting from coercion by conflicting powerful figures. We can understand that the decision to prevent this by providing that emperors would reign for life was a quite legitimate judgment.

Now, however, with aging having progressed to a degree unforeseen 70 years ago, if we continue to rely only on lifetime reigns, not only is the emperor liable to become unable to fully perform his symbolic role, but there is substantial concern that the imperial heir and the person next in the line of succession will succeed to the throne at an advanced age and themselves find it difficult to perform their duties. Opening the way for abdication at this point would seem to be necessary and meaningful in order to preserve the functioning of the symbolic emperor system set forth in the Constitution.

I would stress, however, that in order to ensure that abdication will be implemented for legitimate reasons and will operate as a system that allows the stable continuation and development of the imperial throne and imperial house, it is essential to have the practical involvement of an authoritative, permanent institution like the Imperial House Council.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 30 and published on August 5, 2016. Banner photo: As one of his constitutional acts in matters of state, Emperor Akihito delivers a message convoking the Diet on August 1, 2016. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ From the English translation at http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/e-kunaicho/hourei-01.html.—Ed.

emperor imperial family abdication