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Japan's emperor opts for abdication

Process begins as Akihito's health problems make his duties difficult

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko watch a video introducing the America-Japan Society at an event celebrating the organization's 100th anniversary, in Tokyo on April 13. (Pool photo)

TOKYO The work to establish a formal procedure for allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate the throne in favor of Crown Prince Naruhito is almost complete. The government is now preparing to submit to the Diet a bill to launch the process. The bill is designed to enable the abdication as a one-off, exceptional case without changing the basic framework for Imperial succession.

Emperor Akihito reportedly expected that the debate on his retirement would also cover such related issues as possible expansion of the role of women in the Imperial family. But the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which feared that touching on such issues could shake the traditional Japanese view of the nation, maneuvered to ensure an early conclusion of the debate without seeking any fundamental reform of the Imperial household system.

The emperor is different by nature from the constitutional monarchs of other countries that have royal families. It is impossible to understand Japan's national character without comprehending this difference. The emperor was regarded as a living god until 1946.

The emperor under the old Constitution was not only institutionally deified but also had enormous spiritual influence over the Japanese people. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the U.S. Army forces in the Far East during World War II and supreme commander of the Allied powers during the postwar Allied Occupation of Japan, decided to indirectly rule Japan while maintaining the Imperial system instead of direct administration by U.S. forces.

There was heated debate among the Allied powers over whether the Imperial system should be abolished. The definition of the emperor as the national symbol was conceived as a political compromise to settle the issue.

This does not mean, however, that the emperor as the national symbol is similar in nature or function to the British monarch, who "reigns but does not rule." In contrast, the emperor was considered a descendant of the gods.

RESTORE TO PREWAR Since the end of World War II, traditionalists and patriots in Japan have been trying to "restore" the prewar Japan.

Symbolizing such nostalgia for the old Japan was the Mishima Incident. On Nov. 25, 1970, internationally renowned writer Yukio Mishima, who had a profound knowledge of Japanese aesthetic tradition, visited the Self-Defense Forces camp in Ichigaya, Tokyo, and, standing before a crowd of SDF servicemen, delivered a harangue urging them to rise up against the postwar Constitution.

In 1978, the so-called Class A war criminals, wartime Japanese leaders who were convicted of serious war crimes in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, known as the Tokyo Trials, were enshrined at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo together with other war dead. This move echoed the nationalist ethos of the traditionalist movement.

Akihito's father, Hirohito, was infuriated at this attempt to exonerate Japan and stopped his regular pilgrimages to the shrine, which he had visited every five years. Emperor Akihito has never visited the shrine since he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne.

These facts provide a historical perspective vital for understanding the deliberations concerning Akihito's abdication that started last summer.

Unlike his predecessor, whose status changed from living god to human being as a result of international politics, Akihito has always been the emperor as national symbol since his accession to the throne. People close to the emperor say Akihito thought he would not be able to serve as the symbol of "the unity of the People" if he relied only on the traditional authority of the emperor.

As a result, he has based his public service on two key principles since he ascended the throne in 1989. One is strictly adhering to the pacifist principles of the Constitution and, specifically, making as many trips as possible to console the spirits of war victims in countries where Japan fought in the war.

Akihito apparently feels he cannot serve as the emperor as national symbol if he can no longer perform such activities. He wants to make sure that the crown prince will inherit this view of the emperor and act accordingly. Though he is aware that by urging the government to revise the law he could violate Article 4 of the Constitution, he expressed his desire to abdicate because of these wishes.

NOT SO FAST The Abe administration has not welcomed Akihito's view of the emperor. When the Imperial Household Agency secretly conveyed the emperor's wish to abdicate to the prime minister's office, the administration tried to pretend that it had not heard it. Then, some close aides to Akihito leaked the information to Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), the public broadcaster.

The role of the emperor has changed dramatically over time through the nation's history. There were eras when the emperor actually ruled the nation and there were also eras when the emperor only conducted rituals and other formalities while entrusting power to regents, chancellors or shoguns. There is no single definition for the role of emperor.

There is, however, no doubt that Akihito's views on the role and status of the emperor are different from those of the Abe administration. As it has been decided that a special-case law should be enacted to allow Akihito to abdicate, some important related issues have been shelved. They include whether to allow a woman or an Imperial family member on the maternal line to become the emperor and whether a married female member of the Imperial family should be allowed to remain in the Imperial ranks by becoming head of a newly created Imperial household.

What does Abe intend to do to cope with this sticky question? The nation is facing a crucial choice concerning the issue of Imperial succession. Should it choose to restore former Imperial family members to their previous status in order to maintain an unbroken line of emperors that supposedly dates back to the gods? Or should it opt to allow succession in the female line in accordance with global trends?

Tackling this hugely complicated and politically fraught issue, requires a leader with considerable courage. Given the Japanese tendency to put off grappling with sticky challenges, this problem seems likely to remain untouched until the very last moment, perhaps when the Imperial line is about to die out.

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