TOKYO Japan stood still on Aug. 8 as the country's Emperor Akihito spoke in a video message to the public for only the second time in history. People in the streets paused in front of TV screens to watch in the sweltering summer heat as all major networks carried the 10-minute address, in which the aging monarch strongly hinted that he wished to abdicate for health reasons.
"I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now," Akihito, 82, said in the message.
The emperor was treated for prostate cancer in 2003 and underwent coronary-bypass surgery in 2012. While rehabilitation and regular exercise have helped him stay healthy, the emperor said he began "to feel a decline in my fitness level because of my advancing age," and started "to think about the pending future, how I should conduct myself should it become difficult for me to carry out my heavy duties in the way I have been doing, and what would be best for the country, for the people, and also for the Imperial family members who will follow after me."
Akihito revealed that one of his concerns was the impact on society in the event of his ill health and subsequent death. "As we have seen in the past, society comes to a standstill and people's lives are impacted in various ways," he said. "The practice in the Imperial family has been that the death of the emperor called for events of heavy mourning, continuing every day for two months, followed by funeral events which continue for one year. ... It occurs to me from time to time to wonder whether it is possible to prevent such a situation."
He added, "It is my hope that ... the duties of the emperor as the symbol of the state can continue steadily without a break. With this earnest wish, I have decided to make my thoughts known."
LEGAL COMPLICATIONS Abdication is not uncommon in the rest of the world. But in Japan, where the last abdication took place almost 200 years ago, it is by no means an uncomplicated matter, and legal and traditional issues are likely to be at the forefront of public debate.
The Imperial House Law, which sets out rules for Imperial affairs including those regarding the line of succession, makes no provision for abdication. Letting the emperor step down would be difficult without changing the law, and in the process, past debates over other succession-related issues could be revived.
In 2005, a panel appointed by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi discussed allowing women and matrilineal heirs to accede to the throne. In 2012, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda considered letting female members of the Imperial family form their own royal houses after marriage. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is reportedly interested in restoring royal status to houses forced out of the Imperial family after World War II, or allowing the family to adopt men from these branches, to ensure a stable line of patrilineal succession. "Even if we get public support for abdication, discussions could drag on because of the female succession issue," an Abe aide said.
Establishing a permanent system for abdication would also be complicated. The government would need to determine the status and title of retired emperors and take steps to keep future emperors from stepping down arbitrarily or being forced out. Faced with this prospect, some in the government have proposed enacting a special law permitting abdication in just this one case. With public support, a bill could be submitted to the Diet, Japan's parliament, as early as next year's regular session.
However, this approach could raise questions about consistency with Article 2 of Japan's constitution, which states that "the Imperial throne shall be dynastic and succeeded to in accordance with the Imperial House Law passed by the Diet." Some experts anticipate no constitutional problems if the Imperial House Law is revised as necessary afterward, but such a move risks criticism that using an ad hoc law to change the emperor's status sets a bad precedent.
HURRY UP AND WAIT The time frame for the process is another issue. Since the emperor took the unusual step of conveying his feelings directly to the public, some in the ruling coalition contend that the government should act quickly. But an immediate response to the emperor's plea could create the perception that the emperor wields power over the government, which is forbidden by the constitution. "This could end up turning into a constitutional debate," a government source said.
Many in the government and the ruling coalition advise proceeding with caution and remaining within the confines of the constitution to avoid any adverse impact on Abe's efforts to revise the constitution.
"I take seriously the fact that the emperor made his feelings known to the public," Abe told reporters on the day the emperor's message was broadcast. "I deeply sympathize with his concerns in light of his age and the burden of public duties, and we will need to think about what we can do with regard to his public duties and related matters."
The government is expected to form an expert panel as early as September to begin discussing the issue.