Japanese emperor prepared to abdicate

By Todd Crowell

TOKYO (AA) – Japanese Emperor Akihito has expressed willingness to lay down his burdens and retire, but a law that only envisions a monarch’s abdication at death may be an obstacle to the 82-year-old relinquishing the throne.

National broadcaster NHK reported earlier this week that the emperor had expressed a desire to step down in favor of his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, “in a few years”.

The report threw Japan into consternation — although it was commonplace during medieval times, no modern Japanese monarch has abdicated.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ducked this political hot potato.

“I would refrain from commenting given the nature of the issue,” he said before boarding an aircraft to take him to Mongolia, which is hosting the Asia-Europe conference.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s chief spokesman, said the cabinet had no present plans to consult with the emperor on this matter.

The Imperial Household Agency flatly denied that Akihito would abdicate.

It is generally agreed that Emperor Akihito cannot abdicate according to the current Imperial Household law.

The law only envisions the monarch’s death and his succession by his eldest male child. The law would have to be changed.

But there should still be considerable empathy for Akihito’s plight.

At age 82, he suffers from a number of ailments including bouts with prostrate cancer and heart trouble.

The household staff has tried to limit his duties, but there are some, including religious rites, he can’t easily delegate.

Moreover, the emperor has performed his duties as a constitutional monarch impeccably since he succeeded his father, known to the West as Emperor Hirohito, 28 years ago.

His popularity with Japanese people was cemented when, as crown prince, he became the first ruling Japanese royal to marry a commoner, now the Empress Michiko, whom he met on a tennis court at a mountain retreat in 1957.

The duties of the current emperor include opening parliament, receiving foreign ambassadors (and as Japan has full relations with every country in the world except North Korea, there are a lot of them) and being the nation’s griever in disasters like the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

On the other hand, he has virtually no political influence, not even to advise or caution the prime minister as in Britain.

And unlike Britain, there is no pretense that he appoints the premier or that the ministers act on behalf of “his government”.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the American occupation forces under General Douglas MacArthur struggled to define the role of the emperor in Japan’s new constitution.

They finally settled on describing him as a “symbol of state and the unity of the nation”.

Ironically, the report that Akihito wants to abdicate came only three days after the Liberal Democratic Party of PM Abe won enough seats in parliament to propose constitutional amendments, including — in theory — the status of the monarchy.

The party would like to formally describe the emperor as a “head of state” although it is unclear whether this would involve greater powers.

It would, however, get rid of what some consider the undignified terminology of “symbol of the state and the unity of the nation”.

Akihito has occasionally but obliquely made political statements.

His speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II was considered a more fulsome apology than that of the premier and taken as a rebuke to conservatives who want to abandon pacifism.

Conservatives in Japan who venerate the imperial system must deal with the fact that the current monarch is a liberal, and so too is the crown prince.

It may date to the fact that Akihito’s tutor as a boy was an American, Elizabeth Vining.

The last imperial crisis took place a few years ago and concerned female succession. It became clear that Crown Princess Masako was not going to give birth after bearing one female child.

By law the emperor must be a male. The government of Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, extremely reluctantly began work on preparing legislation to permit women to become reigning empress.

Then miracle of miracles, Princess Kiko — the wife of the emperor’s second son Prince Akishino — gave birth in 2006 to a boy, Prince Hisohito.

That meant the male succession was secured for at least another 80 years.

Koizumi hastily dropped the female succession bill.

It is easy for Japanese citizens to forget that they even have an emperor.

There is no cult of personality; the monarch’s profile does not appear on the money; his photograph does not grace government offices or post offices. Weeks can pass without stories appearing in the media about the imperial family.

Although Akihito is said to be the 125th emperor in an unbroken line stretching back centuries, most of the rules that govern his position are of modern vintage.

In medieval times emperors constantly “retired” though they still exercised influence. Women could and sometimes did sit on the throne.