Japan’s long-serving emperor, Akihito, stunned his country Monday in a video address, during he heavily hinted that the Japanese parliament should consider permitting his future abdication.
The emperor did not fully endorse legislation to allow abdication, out of respect for the tradition that emperors do not intervene directly in Japanese politics. But at age 82, Akihito, who has suffered from increasingly poor health in recent years, made it abundantly clear that he believes that his retirement would be a good thing for the Japanese people — if the current government finds a way to amend the imperial succession laws. In addressing the Japanese people directly, and in reinforcing the emperor’s role as a symbol of postwar pacifism, Akihito also contrasted with the post-imperial views of prime minister Shinzō Abe, perhaps the most nationalist of Japan’s postwar civilian leaders.
No matter what happens, Akihito’s address signals that his son, the 56-year-old Naruhito, could take a much more high-profile role in the future. If the Diet enacts legislation permitting abdication, Naruhito might even soon become Japan’s new emperor.
The abdication question is now just one of several issues on Abe’s desk after his dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) made gains in elections last month in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the National Diet (国会, Kokkai), the Japanese parliament. Among other things, Abe has postponed a long-planned increase in the national consumption tax and has doubled down on what’s already been nearly four years of fiscal and monetary stimulus to improve Japan’s long-stagnant economy. Above all, he still harbors dreams of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution by amending Article 9, the famous provision that outlaws war and technically forbids a standing Japanese army (though, in reality, the so-called Japan Self-Defense Forces have more personnel than the United Kingdom’s army).
Akihito’s Monday afternoon address, however, brings the Japanese imperial tradition to the forefront of Japan’s often muted (by American standards, at least) political agenda. The Chrysanthemum Throne dates back nearly three millennia as the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy. Japan’s emperors, however, traditionally wielded more moral and spiritual power than actual power. That was true in the Tokugawa era, and it’s been true since the end of World War II when the United States and its allies rehabilitated the imperial institution to use Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 to 1989, as a link from pre-war to post-war Japan.
Hirohito, in the immediate postwar period, admitted publicly that the emperor was not, in fact, a god. Akihito’s wife, Michiko, is the first commoner to serve as empress, and they have tried to make the throne more accessible to the Japanese people. Naruhito, in particular, has indicated that he would like to continue to break down some of the formality surrounding the imperial family.
A national debate on imperial succession, however, could prompt debate over several difficult issues, including the issue of whether a woman could one day become emperor — currently, only men are eligible.
But it could also inflame subtle tensions between the elected government and the throne. Akihito, like his father, has embodied the postwar pacifist tradition and ensured that the imperial throne remains a symbol of Japan’s pacifism. Abe, like his father Shintarō Abe — a foreign minister in the 1980s and a longtime power broker in the LDP from the 1960s through the 1980s — represents a hawkish, nationalist and conservative faction within the LDP that would like to erode Japan’s pacifism in the face of a growing (and, to many Japanese eyes, an increasingly threatening) China.
There’s a risk that Abe could use the abdication issue as a wedge to introduce wider constitutional reforms, not only to weaken Article 9, but also to strengthen his own government vis-à-vis the emperor.
Abdication, at least among European monarchs, is becoming an increasingly acceptable option, recognizing the fact that kings and queens are mortal beings who, like the rest of us, get older and weaker with time:
- Beatrix, crowned queen of The Netherlands in 1980, abdicated in 2013 at age 75.
- Albert II, Belgium’s king from 1993 to 2013, was 78 years old when he abdicated.
- Spain’s Juan Carlos I, who assumed the crown in 1976, abdicated in 2014 at the age of 76.
- Even the pope, Benedict XVI, retired in February 2013 at the age of 85.
Naruhito, like his father and grandfather, has been a subtle proponent of Japanese pacifism. Last year, for example, upon the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Naruhito made a rare, if low-key, statement about not forgetting the lessons of the war and that the Japanese should ‘look back on the past humbly and correctly’:
“I hope this year will be an opportunity to take the preciousness of peace to heart and renew our determination to pursue peace,” he said, and added that the country’s post-war constitution was a “cornerstone” on which modern Japan was built.
That contrasts strongly with Abe, who has visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and who has downplayed Japan’s wartime crimes — a posture that continually annoys South Korea, China and other east Asian neighbors.
The oldest son of Akihito, Naruhito studied at Japan’s Gakushuin University and at England’s Oxford University in the 1980s. He met his wife, Masako Owada, a former diplomat, in 1986, and the couple were married in 1993, and they have one daughter, Aiko, born in 2001. (Under current law, if Naruhito, as emperor, were to die — or step down — the imperial throne would pass to his brother and not to his daughter). An avid skiier, Naruhito also plays the violin and the viola. Somewhat reserved, Naruhito, as crown prince, has represented Japan across the world and, at home, he has focused on water conservation issues. In 2012, he temporarily assumed imperial duties when Akihito was undergoing heart surgery.