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An Imperial appeal to the people

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Japanese Emperor Akihito, front row, third from left, smiles with family members on Nov. 15, 2015, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.   © Reuters

TOKYO Emperor Akihito's video address to the nation, in which he strongly hinted at his desire to relinquish the throne, was something of a last resort.

The aging monarch first signaled his intention to step down to family members and close aides about five years ago, according to the Imperial Household Agency, which released the video on Aug. 8. But the Japanese constitution forbids the emperor from saying anything with political implications, and the prime minister's office has been hesitant to address the emperor's wish, according to the agency.

"To move the discussion forward, we had no choice but to create an opportunity for the emperor to directly speak to the public about what he has been thinking," an agency official said.

DELICATE ISSUE In a news conference marking his 82nd birthday last December, the emperor said, "I am beginning to feel my age, and there have been times when I made some mistakes at events."

At that point, the emperor had already informed senior officials of the Imperial Household Agency that he wanted to make his thoughts on stepping down known to the public.

According to sources within the Imperial Household, the agency secretly contacted the prime minister's office to inform the government of the emperor's intention. Because the Imperial House Law has no provision for an abdication by a reigning emperor, it would have to be revised. The prime minister's office, for its part, seems unsure of how to proceed, because the issue will likely reignite debate on other issues, such as the controversial topic of female succession.

The main stumbling block was Article 4 of the constitution, which stipulates that the emperor "shall not have powers related to government." The risk was that the emperor would run afoul of that provision if he expressly mentioned his desire to step down, as it could be interpreted as an attempt to change the system of the state.

But as time passed, the emperor's determination to express his thoughts only deepened.

The situation changed suddenly on July 13, when Japanese media began reporting that Emperor Akihito had expressed a desire to end his reign while still alive.

While the Imperial Household Agency denied the reports, unidentified agency sources said negotiations between the agency and the prime minister's office moved into high gear behind the scenes.

The government's slowness to act on the emperor's request hardened the resolve of senior Imperial Household officials, who decided to explore options for the emperor to communicate his feelings to the public directly. Their thinking was that constitutional complications could be avoided if the emperor merely referred to a desire to cede the throne without requesting any legal changes.

It is not true that Akihito wants to retire early because of the heavy workload, an agency official said, adding that he is worried some people may have the mistaken impression that the emperor intends to relinquish the throne immediately.

Experts' comments on emperor's message:

Former Supreme Court Justice Itsuo Sonobe, expert on Imperial House Law

Over the course of Japan's history, it has not been unusual for the emperor to abdicate. But after the Meiji era, neither the Constitution nor the Imperial House Law include provisions for abdication. Consequently, until several years ago, even I did not think an abdication would take place in Japan, despite my long study of Imperial House Law. This is partly because Emperor Akihito was believed to be in good health.

However, the emperor expressed concerns about his advanced age and declining health. While there may be some concerns about whether the emperor violated the Constitution by expressing his thoughts as he did, the matter should be considered from a humanist perspective. Is there anyone who can say that the emperor must serve until his death?

Because the Imperial House Law sets out rules pertaining to the affairs of the imperial family, it is not entirely applicable to the emperor -- the head of the family -- and cannot prevent him from expressing his own wishes. Moreover, the emperor holds a ceremonial position as a figurehead in Japan, but he is also an individual. Nobody can force him to remain on the throne against his will.

The current system under which the imperial throne is handed over to a successor upon the emperor's death certainly has a significant meaning for his status as the symbol of the state. But Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who abdicated in 2013, enjoyed nationwide support. Although I think the emperor's wish to step down prior to his death might be accepted by the Japanese public, the final call is theirs. Now is the time for each of them to consider how to create a legal mechanism for a royal abdication.

The government should also try to understand the emperor's feelings and take the necessary steps to revise the Imperial House Law and other existing laws.

Koichi Yokota, honorary professor at Kyushu University and constitutional expert

There is a difference between discussing in general terms whether abdication should be allowed and starting the debate only after the emperor's video message. While I agree there is a need for general discussion on the matter, the overwhelming sympathy for the emperor's position his statement has evoked makes it difficult to have a calm, level-headed debate.

Although the emperor refrained from using the word "abdication," public opinion has already shown majority support for his desire to cede the throne.

I think the Imperial Household Agency exercised extreme caution about the language in the emperor's statement to avoid any explicit mention of abdication, which would involve political and legal procedures. But in the end, if his message gives impetus to discussion about a change to the existing system, this could be seen as a political intervention by the emperor. I think we should interpret the emperor's statement as expressing his personal view, and I recommend we begin the debate over the imperial system with a clean slate.

If the emperor wants to retire because his old age makes it difficult to carry out his official duties, the agency needs to take measures to reduce the burden of those duties. The emperor's message seems to indicate that he feels responsible for carrying out his role in matters of state that are clearly beyond the scope of the Constitution. But strictly speaking, it is enough for the emperor to perform his role only in such matters of state as provided for in the Constitution. Emperor Akihito can easily win the people's understanding in this matter, as he is venerated by the Japanese public.

Moreover, if the emperor is legally allowed to step down, he may overshadow the new emperor, especially if his presence continues to linger vividly in the minds of the people. This could shake the foundations of the imperial throne.

Give the recent message, it is particularly important to discuss -- from a longer-term perspective -- the emperor's role as symbol of the state.


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