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Eri Hotta: The lonely struggle of Japan's democratic emperor

Akihito's quest to reform imperial system makes him a symbol of democracy

Japanese Emperor Akihito, left, and Empress Michiko wave to well-wishers celebrating the emperor's 83rd birthday on Dec. 23 at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Emperor Akihito of Japan has a complicated retirement plan. A government-appointed advisory panel of business and scholarly figures will shortly begin final deliberations on whether -- and how -- he should abdicate. The tenor of the interim report issued in January suggests that the panel will unanimously recommend that the 83-year-old monarch be permitted to step down -- but only as a one-off exception, which would not apply to future emperors. A special bill will then be submitted to the Diet, which could go into effect in the summer. An imperial abdication -- a first in modern times -- would thus be achieved "speedily" and "prudently," in the words of one panel member. The idea is to save the trouble of altering the Imperial House Law, which stipulates, among other things, a lifetime reign for the emperor and a male succession line.

Superficially, the emperor seems to be getting what he deserves -- the right to retire, after years of service to the nation as its symbol and its highest-ranking ambassador. But the suggested one-time deal cannot be a happy outcome for him. He has made it clear that his wish is not to find an easy way out for himself, but to humanize the imperial system for later generations.

To that end, he seems to want the people of Japan to engage in a candid debate about abdication, the rules governing imperial succession and perhaps, more broadly, the meaning of the Imperial House in contemporary Japanese society.

The most ironic aspect of the unfolding abdication saga is that Emperor Akihito, the very embodiment of Japan's inherently undemocratic institution, is shown to be its most valiant democracy advocate: an earnest student who has absorbed the ideals of the immediate postwar era and who, belying his mild demeanor, is unafraid to stir up a sensitive debate. Frustratingly for him, however, the rest of the nation would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, for various reasons.

The people in power, represented by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his rightwing supporters, are determined to maintain the status quo. The opposition, most notably the Democratic Party, is too ineffective to counter Abe's governing majority.

Ordinary citizens are not sure how to debate this issue, and understandably so. From the time of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the state has made sure that citizens cannot casually discuss the ancient Imperial House, having reinvigorated it from its centuries-old dormancy and reinvented it as the crux of modern Japanese nationalism.

Despite its tainted history as the rallying point of Japan's wartime ultranationalism, and despite the post-World War II demotion of the present emperor's father, Emperor Hirohito, from a godly status to a mere mortal, national deference for the institution has survived. This was largely enabled by the U.S. Cold War policy of rebuilding a stable Japan as the most important ally in East Asia, with the emperor system providing a spiritual continuity for the vanquished nation.

All this creates an awkward situation for Emperor Akihito, whose lonely quest began last August. Back then he explained, in a rare televised speech, that he could no longer fulfill his official duties to his satisfaction. Beyond pleading his case of advancing age and fragile health, he indicated that it was time for Japan to reconsider the future of imperial succession. As a public figure fundamentally constrained by the country's constitution to steer clear of politics, he put this case as forcefully as he could.

The emperor referred to the precedents of abdications in "our country's long history of imperial rulers," hoping that Japanese emperors could retire with dignity. He stressed that emperors are first and foremost individuals, with human limitations, who age like everyone else.

The speech appeared to be a public relations success. Most polls indicated that the majority of Japanese approved of altering the abdication law. Abe, a staunch nationalist obsessed with retaining the mystique of the protocol-shrouded imperial institution intact, responded by appointing the aforementioned advisory panel. By taking swift action to enable the one-time bill, he was trying to avoid any chances for permanent reforms, involving not only the abdication question but also the female succession question, a likely development as Akihito's elder son and heir, Naruhito, has just one child, a daughter.

In fact, Japan has had female sovereigns before, the first in the 6th century and the last in the late 18th century. Both males and females with a patrilineal claim to ancient emperors could succeed, though this also meant that children of empresses would not have any claim to the throne as descendants from the maternal line. It was only with the Meiji Restoration, following the Prussian example, that females ceased to be potential heirs. Further rules were instituted after World War II to downsize the Imperial House in democratic times.

MISSED MESSAGE What does the emperor make of all this? The public has been kept surprisingly well informed of late. This is thanks to Mototsugu Akashi, a retired business executive and the emperor's classmate from nursery school, his equestrian companion and, in this particular episode, his confidant and public defender. Since last summer's imperial speech, Akashi has spoken selectively to the media as a concerned friend, adamantly insisting that the emperor wants permanent reform. His remark last December was especially poignant: "In observing the proceedings of the advisory panel," Akashi noted, its members were "proffering opinions that are different from the public's" and moreover "wholly removed from the emperor's."

Akashi quite correctly pointed out that public opinion differs from the government's official view. As recently as late January, Kyodo News polls showed that 63.3% of respondents still preferred a permanent solution allowing future emperors to abdicate, while 26.9% favored the government's one-off legislation. It is equally true, however, that nobody is standing up for the emperor beyond responding sympathetically in polls. Neither are the mainstream media spearheading a critical debate, seemingly reluctant to upset the increasingly powerful government.

But isn't standing up for one's beliefs, in an open and nonviolent manner, what democracy is all about? Emperor Akihito has consistently tried to square his public role with his democratic principles, instilled from boyhood, most notably by his American Quaker tutor Elizabeth Vining. She taught him the valuable lesson, again in the words of his confidant, Akashi: "Man must act on his own will."

The emperor has clearly done his best. He chose his own spouse, a commoner. He then took on more and more official duties over the years, without any prodding, tirelessly travelling with Empress Michiko, and readily reaching out to people in need. He also made it clear that the Japanese should reflect on their aggressive past. His persistence, industry and compassion are admirable, even though admiration is probably not quite what he is after.

He wants to "stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts," as he noted in his speech last summer. It is his faith in people and his willingness to stand up for his beliefs that qualify him, far more than an accident of birth, as the rightful national symbol of democratic Japan.

Eri Hotta is author of "Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013); the Japanese edition "1941 -- Ketsuinaki Kaisen" (Jimbun Shoin, 2016) won an Asia Pacific Award 2016's Special Prize.

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