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An ageing emperor steps down – and leaves Japan at an awkward crossroads

An ageing emperor steps down – and leaves Japan at an awkward crossroads

EPA/Christopher Jue

Emperor Akihito’s recent statement to the Japanese nation had been anticipated for some time, but it was nonetheless a startling moment. Akihito refrained from uttering the “a-word”, but the message was clear: he wants to abdicate.

In the pre-recorded message, Emperor Akihito cited his illness, his age, and fatigue. He had lost confidence, he said, in his capacity to serve as a symbol of national unity.

Carefully dancing around the abdication issue, he said he wanted to avoid the national torpor that sets in when an emperor is incapacitated through terminal illness, not to mention the prolonged period of political and social lethargy that inevitably follows an emperor’s death.

Akihito spoke from experience. When his father, Hirohito, was on his deathbed in late 1988, and after his death in January 1989, the nation came to a standstill. He asked whether anything could be done to avert this – and the audience knew exactly what he wanted.

So what now? A whole array of legal issues need clarifying before an abdication can go ahead, to say nothing of the politics that might stand in the way. Akihito has effectively tasked the nation with redefining the monarchy, right at a time when the government of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, is looking to recast Japan’s post-war pacifism.

The great conundrum

The initial reaction was level-headed and respectful. Abe stated that the nation needed to think long and hard about this. Given that abdication would require an amendment to the Imperial Household Law, any request for change potentially violated the prerogatives of the Diet (parliament). However, the Imperial Household Agency clarified that the emperor’s statement was personal, and that it therefore didn’t violate the constitutional requirement that he stay out of politics.

Still, abdication or not, the Imperial Household Law is long overdue for amendment.

Shinzo Abe and Emperor Akihito. EPA/Franck Robichon

Next in line to the throne is Crown Prince Naruhito; he has a daughter, Princess Aiko, but no sons. The imperial throne is passed down the male lineage, so the law will need amending if Aiko is to become a crown princess – and there has been some quiet discussion on the desirability of an empress in the future. Nevertheless, Abe himself is said to be sceptical of amending it.

Even though Akihito sought to stay clear of politics in his video, reminding the audience that he was mindful of his position, his repeated emphasis on his status as a symbol of national unity was tantamount to a restatement of the pacifist constitution, the symbol of Japan’s post-war political arrangement.

This is where the context of Akihito’s announcement really matters.

The future of Japan

Coming just a week before the annual August 15 commemoration of Japan’s war dead, speculation over the announcement’s hidden political meanings can only intensify.

Akihito effectively told the nation that while he is happy in it, the role of a symbolic monarch is strenuous and taxing. His message implied that abdication is the best way to preserve the post-war arrangement of monarchical and elected powers – but with the Abe administration, this order might be coming to an end.

Under Abe’s current stint as prime minister, the constitutional prohibition against collective self-defence has been “reinterpreted”, paving the way for Japan to enhance its defensive alliance with the US. Now Abe is focusing on amending the constitution in revitalising Japan as a “beautiful country”. His LDP party scored a landslide victory in the July 2016 upper house elections, meaning he is now a step closer to realising his dream.

Abe’s suggestion that the nation needs to ponder long and hard about Akihito’s pronouncement could be taken as a signal to delay the discussion But however determined Abe is to drag his heels, there is little to stop the ultra-conservatives to his right from campaigning to refashion the monarchy altogether – and many nationalists dream of reviving the absolute monarchy of the pre-war constitution.

Regardless of his intentions, Emperor Akihito has confronted Japan with a momentous choice: whether to take a retrograde step towards anachronistic imperialism, or to redefine the institution to match the demands of 21st-century society.

Whether or not the Japanese people and their leaders are aware that they are standing at this crossroads, and whether or not they can make a decisive choice, are different questions altogether.