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Jeff Kingston -- Emperor's abdication plan raises broader issues

News that Japanese Emperor Akihito, 82, is planning to abdicate is understandable given his declining health in recent years. But his proposed move, reported by state broadcaster NHK on July 13, carries significant implications for Japan, its efforts at regional reconciliation over wartime actions and the fate of monarchy around the world.

Known as the "people's emperor," Emperor Akihito would be sorely missed by the majority of Japanese, who clearly admire and cherish his role. With Empress Michiko by his side, he has been widely praised for his readiness to show sympathy and support for those in need, from Japan's handicapped to victims of natural disasters. And unlike his father, the late Emperor Showa (Hirohito), he has not remained aloof from his people. His frequent displays of empathy and compassion help explain why he is so popular, and why he will be a very tough act to follow.

Aside from being Japan's "healer in chief," Emperor Akihito has done more than all of Japan's postwar politicians combined as an emissary of reconciliation with Asian neighbors over Japan's Imperial aggression and wartime misdeeds. He has crisscrossed the region on an extended pilgrimage of contrition aimed at addressing the unfinished business of his father's long reign. This agenda of belated regional healing has greatly improved Japan's image and helped former foes overcome lingering grievances and resentments, gently nudging relations down the road of understanding and rapprochement.

The emperor's "apology diplomacy" in Asia has been backed up by public opinion polls, and has no doubt influenced how Japanese regard their shared past with Asia.

His unwavering acceptance of responsibility for Japan's wartime acts and significant gestures of atonement have promoted Japan's standing in the comity of nations. Despite sustained collective efforts to reinvent his father as a man of peace, it was never quite possible to escape the taint of wartime atrocities committed during Emperor Hirohito's reign. However, as both victims and perpetrators pass from the scene, Japan's Imperial institution has achieved a stature and legitimacy under Emperor Akihito that could never have been possible under his father. He has made a difference by operating effectively within the confines of constitutional constraints and the Imperial Household Agency, a government entity that strictly controls all matters related to the monarchy.

Symbolism and continuity

The Imperial family is a richly symbolic institution representing a reassuring continuity for many Japanese. That continuity is even more significant as the swift pace of change in postwar Japan has challenged and transformed established beliefs and norms in profound ways that have generated considerable social anxiety. In this context, traditions and culture have gained more appeal precisely because national identity is at stake. In searching for such identity in a globalizing world, Japan's Imperial institution is distinctive and quintessentially Japanese, a touchstone of tradition that animates the core of the country's collective consciousness.

Certainly many Japanese, especially the younger generations, do not seek an identity grounded in the Imperial system -- nor do they view it as a reassuring bridge to the past. Some question the need for an emperor at all, while others are indifferent to an institution that seems remote and irrelevant -- one that faces more risk from fading into oblivion than from concerted opposition. However, for many Japanese, the Imperial connections with the past, and myths about the society's origin, continue to resonate powerfully; some argue that the monarchy exerts a unifying influence that offsets democracy's divisive struggles.

Public opinion polls indicate that 75%-85% of Japanese support retention of the monarchy, even though many feel it is remote from their lives; typically less than 10% demand abolition of the monarchy, while even fewer advocate enhancing the powers of the emperor.

Emperor Akihito has distanced himself publicly from conservatives who advocate their own reactionary agendas in his name, and has discreetly rebuked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other conservatives in that ineffable manner the constitution demands. For example, one official approached him for his blessing over attempts to force teachers to stand and sing the national anthem while facing the flag. The emperor demurred, saying he thought it should be a matter of individual choice, thereby extending the Imperial imprimatur to the teachers' constitutional argument.

More pointedly, ahead of the 70th anniversary in 2015 of Japan's World War II surrender, Emperor Akihito issued statements and made speeches that subtly repudiated Abe's revisionist agenda on rewriting Japan's wartime history. There was a striking contrast in the respective 70th anniversary commemoration statements by Abe and by Emperor Akihito that highlighted the ongoing political divide between the revisionists and the understanding of most Japanese about how the nation got to where it is today.

Noting the deaths of more than 3 million Japanese during World War II, Abe asserted: "The peace we enjoy today exists only upon such precious sacrifices. And therein lies the origin of postwar Japan." This assertion that wartime sacrifices begot contemporary peace is the revisionist conceit, one that Emperor Akihito clearly rejected on Aug. 15, 2015, when he said, "Our country today enjoys peace and prosperity, thanks to the ceaseless efforts made by the people of Japan toward recovery from the devastation of the war and toward development, always backed by their earnest desire for the continuation of peace."

Peace and prosperity, in the emperor's view, did not come from treating the Japanese people like cannon fodder during the war, but rather was based on their postwar efforts to overcome the tragedy inflicted by the nation's expansionist leaders. The emperor has been a vigorous and popular advocate for a national identity based on pacifism that most Japanese support, a view inimical to Abe's agenda on constitutional revision.

Message for monarchies

Emperor Akihito's proposal to abdicate would not leave Japan with an impending succession crisis, because his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, has been groomed to assume the throne. But the crown prince has no male heir and legally his daughter cannot succeed him. The son of Crown Prince Naruhito's brother, Prince Akishino, would be first in line -- unless the Diet, or parliament, changes the law.

Clearly there are global implications as monarchies around the world try to remain relevant and survive in the 21st century. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who abdicated in 2013 at age 75, apparently shared her thoughts with Emperor Akihito about ceding the throne, perhaps inspiring him.

In Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been in failing health in recent years, but there is controversy over the succession given concerns about the crown prince, who is not as popular as his father. King Bhumibol has been a stabilizing presence in a frequently volatile society, having intervened politically on several occasions. But now he is frail and unable to prevent the sharp polarization of Thai politics that has convulsed the nation. The days of the monarch restoring harmony may well be over.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth II, having just celebrated her 90th birthday, seems to be in good health. But in the wake of the U.K.'s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, who can say with certainty how contemporary British society feels about an institution so closely identified with her? The heir apparent, Prince Charles, certainly has his supporters, but his prolonged presence in the limelight and earlier marital troubles have diminished him in the public eye. Monarchies everywhere depend a great deal on the persona of the king or queen, and transitions are thus fraught with risks -- particularly these days as they appear increasingly anachronistic with less and less capacity to effect good and justify their existence.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan; his latest book is "Nationalism in Asia: A History Since 1945" (Wiley 2016).

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