The Abdication Question in Japan and Europe: A Comparison


On January 23, a government advisory panel published its interim report on the question of the emperor’s possible abdication. The panel seems to be tilting toward a solution that would limit abdication to the present emperor only. But as lifespans increase, it is likely that the present emperor will not be the last to want to retire. Has the time come for a fundamental reform of Japan’s Imperial Household Law? Professor Kimizuka Naotaka looks at how several European monarchies have dealt with the abdication question in recent years.

Abdication for the Present Emperor Only?

At three o’clock in the afternoon of August 8, 2016, television stations across Japan carried a video message from the emperor to the Japanese people. The message expressed the emperor’s personal feelings about the duties he has performed for more than a quarter of a century, and spoke of the physical strains involved in carrying out those duties now that this “symbol” of the nation is in his eighties. The video also made clear that appointing a regent to carry out duties on his behalf was not what the emperor wanted.

Soon after the broadcast, the government appointed a panel of experts to discuss possible ways of lightening the emperor’s official duties. The panel is headed by Imai Takashi, honorary chairman of Nippon Keidanren, a business lobby. The committee began its deliberations last fall, and on January 23 this year published an interim report presenting a summary of the arguments for and against the various forms an abdication might take. The report suggests that most of the panel members want to restrict abdication to the present emperor—if this advice is followed, no provisions will be made for future emperors to abdicate as a matter of course. The report also stresses the importance of ensuring that the Japanese people understand and approve of any decision that might be taken.

Is this view in accord with the wishes that the emperor expressed in his video message last August, and with the response of the Japanese people to his message? The panel seems to favor a solution quite different from the situation that prevails among European monarchies. Several European countries have amended their constitutional arrangements in recent years, changing the rules governing succession to allow absolute primogeniture regardless of gender, for example.

Some commentators have suggested that the emperor’s video message was comparable in its impact to the radio broadcast made by the current emperor’s father to announce Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945. Last August’s video message was the first time the emperor had looked his people in the eye and spoken to them directly, rather than through an official address or press conference. It was something new in the relationship between the emperor and his people.

Personally, I think the emperor made the right decision in choosing to convey his wishes in this way. Since the possibility of the emperor’s abdication first arose, I have consistently told journalists that this was the best approach. What brought me to this view was the situation in Europe, where several abdications have taken place in recent years.

Abdications in Belgium and the Netherlands

Perhaps the first monarch to abdicate in a wholly voluntary and orderly manner in modern times was Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who handed the throne to her daughter in 1948. Wilhelmina took the throne at the age of just ten in 1890, and fled to England when her country was invaded by Germany in 1940. In radio broadcasts made from London, the queen encouraged her people to fight back against the Nazi occupation and became a hero of the national resistance. But following her return to the Netherlands after liberation, the queen found that her retiring ways put her at odds with the wishes of her people. People expected grand victory parades and glorious celebrations but the queen was not given to open displays of emotion and felt uncomfortable about appearing in public. She decided to hand responsibility to the next generation, who would have a better understanding of how young people felt. She gave up the throne in favor of her eldest daughter, who became Queen Juliana three years after the occupation ended. Wilhelmina was 68 at the time.

Queen Juliana led the national effort to rebuild the Netherlands after the war until in 1980 she abdicated in favor of Beatrix, her eldest daughter. For the next 33 years, Queen Beatrix traveled extensively both in the Netherlands and internationally, working alongside her people to consolidate national prosperity. Then, as she approached her seventy-fifth birthday in January 2013, she suddenly announced her intention to give the throne to her eldest son, Willem-Alexander. The queen was in good health and enjoyed enthusiastic public support at the time, and her announcement came as a shock to most Dutch people. Queen Beatrix announced her decision to abdicate not through a press conference or official release but via a video message in which she spoke to the people of the Netherlands directly. After this clear expression of her wishes, people were quick to respect and understand her decision.

Then in July the same year, another abdication announcement came from neighboring Belgium, where King Albert II stepped down in favor of his son Philippe. For many years, tensions between Belgium’s Dutch- and French-speaking communities had led to political chaos in the national parliament, and the country had been without an official government for 541 days at one stage. The king had played a crucial role as a symbol of national unity and his work to achieve a political solution in parliament was well known to his people. When political stability seemed to be in sight at last in the summer of 2013, the seventy-nine-year-old king abdicated in favor of his son. Once again, the decision was announced by the king in person via a television broadcast in which he addressed the nation directly.

Monarchy in a Democratic Age

The first European monarchy to use the mass media to speak to people directly in this manner was the British royal family. Every year since she became queen in 1952, Elizabeth II has addressed a “Christmas message” to her people, speaking on a different topic each year. During the first years of her reign the message went out over the radio, but since 1957 the Christmas day message has been shown on television in not only Britain but also Australia, Canada, and other countries around the world where the queen is head of state. The first sovereign to make a Christmas message was the queen’s grandfather, King George V, who spoke to the nation in 1932, when the wireless was becoming a common part of everyday life.

George V, who was on the throne during the Great War of 1914–18, was king at a time when modern mass democracy took root in Britain. The achievement of universal suffrage for men and women after the war meant that the monarch could no longer hope to rule without strong support from ordinary people. This was illustrated by the short reign of George’s successor, Edward VIII, who chose to abdicate when it became clear that national sentiment was strongly opposed to his proposed marriage to Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée. The king announced his decision in a worldwide radio broadcast.

These personal ties between the royal family and ordinary people have become even closer during the reign of the present queen, the niece of Edward VIII. Perhaps only once has the queen taken her subjects’ support for granted, following the death of the hugely popular Princess Diana in 1997. The initial response of the royal family to the accident was widely considered stiff and reserved, and provoked widespread resentment among ordinary people. In subsequent years, the royal family stepped up its PR activities. Today, the royal family uses official websites and YouTube to inform people about the work the royal family is doing, publicizing the more than 3,000 public duties performed by the royals every year and the 600 to 700 charities and other organizations of which the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are patrons.

Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her ninetieth birthday with Royal Mail staff near Windsor Castle. (Photo courtesy of Royal Family website)

Perhaps because of these efforts, recent events to celebrate the queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012 and her ninetieth birthday in 2016 were marked by unprecedented levels of public enthusiasm. The popularity of the queen and the British royal family seems as secure as ever.

The Abdication Question and the Future of the Imperial Family

As the response to Princess Diana’s death showed, even the popular British royal family risks being viewed as distant if it fails to make people aware of its activities and contributions—this is one of the characteristics of monarchies in the modern world. No doubt the emperor’s announcement of his desire to step down last August came as a shock to many people in Japan. It must have seemed rather sudden. Why now, many people wondered, rather than on a suitable milestone occasion such as the emperor’s eightieth birthday in December 2013 or his celebration of 25 years on the throne the following January?

There is still a tendency to view the emperor and his household as august personages who live “above the clouds”, distant from the lives of ordinary people. This tendency has changed little even in the democratic postwar era. The imperial family remains set apart from the lives of ordinary people, and the Imperial Household Agency and the government provide little publicity to make people aware of their work. What kinds of public duties does the emperor actually perform? How many official duties do the emperor and his family perform around the country each year, and where? If more people knew the answers to questions like these, they would have been in a better position to understand the reasons for the emperor’s words last August. In the years to come, one of the most pressing tasks confronting the Imperial Household Agency and the imperial family will be to provide more information to the public and to build a closer, more personal relationship between the imperial household and the Japanese people.

(Banner photo: The emperor and empress attend a New Year’s ceremony in January 2017. Crown Prince Naruhito is in the background to the right. © Jiji.)

emperor imperial family abdication