TOKYO -- Japanese Emperor Akihito's message Monday conveyed his belief that as a symbol, he achieves meaning by working for the nation and its people.
Nowhere in Japanese law does it say this, nor have jurists, historians or politicians defined the emperor's role in this way. But Akihito has had many years to think about what it means to be a symbol.
We Japanese have felt this without need for explanation. We have watched him visit disaster areas to comfort victims and battlegrounds of the past to pray for the dead. We have seen the compassion he shows toward the disabled and other vulnerable members of society. And we have heard his constant reminder to reflect on history so that it may guide our future.
Emperor Akihito has done all this because he believes that "in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts," he said. His public activities with constant companion Empress Michiko have taken him to almost every corner of Japan by his own admission. This work has given form to a symbolic role.
When the emperor becomes too frail to do all this, should he not have a way to cede his position, entrusting these duties to his successor? Akihito did not put such a question to the nation in his message, but the answer is abundantly clear.
Some may say that when the emperor gets to that point, a regency can be established, as provided by existing law. Akihito had an answer for that: a regency "does not change the fact that the Emperor continues to be the Emperor till the end of his life, even though he is unable to fully carry out his duties." The result would be a symbol quite different from the one Japanese have grown to love.
Written in the early days after World War II, the current Imperial House Law was not designed for a society graying at the rate Japan's is now. A regent himself may become elderly while the emperor still lives, or even die first.
In the parliamentary debate on the law, the lack of a provision for abdication was justified by the claim that the public would not want the emperor to step down. Public opinion polls at the time showed that a wide majority did indeed want Emperor Hirohito to continue to reign. That the law was written that way accords with Article 1 of Japan's constitution, which states that the emperor derives his position "from the will of the people."
If the will of the people now, in light of the meaning that Akihito gave to the role, is that their emperor should be able to abdicate, it stands to reason that the same principle holds.
One could feel the gravity of Akihito's wish that "the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State can continue without interruption." He may even have implied that divorced from these duties, a merely symbolic emperor may even come to take on an impersonal, divine status, as before the war.
If Emperor Akihito's message serves as an impetus for debate on changes to the law, some will probably accuse him of overstepping his constitutional boundaries. This may not be the proper way to approach the matter, but the political class should have taken up the role before the emperor spoke out.
Lawmakers should look at the issue squarely and dispassionately, not out of sympathy for the elderly emperor. A mere quick fix would smack of a political solution.