The Emperor and Abdication in Japan

The Emperor and Abdication in Japan
photo credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter/達志影像

What you need to know

Will Akihito be the first Japanese emperor to abdicate since 1817?

Emperor Akihito’s reported wish to abdicate and pass on the throne to Crown Prince Naruhito should be respected by amending relevant laws to make the transition possible once a public consensus is reached on the matter. The 82-year-old Emperor is said to be of the opinion that his position should be filled by someone who can carry out its associated duties as stipulated under the Constitution, and is reported — though denied by government officials — to have expressed his intention to abdicate to people around him since at least a year ago.

The 1947 Imperial House Law says that upon an emperor’s death, the position shall be immediately filled by the first person in line to the throne, but has no provision for an emperor to abdicate. The law will need to be amended to create such a provision, and there seems to be no legitimate reason why an amendment can’t be discussed.

An Imperial abdication has not taken place in Japan since Emperor Kokaku in 1817. Still, abdications were not uncommon in medieval times, and around the world today it is not rare for aging kings and queens to step down so their thrones can be passed on to younger generations. In 2013, Benedict XVI became the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, citing a “lack of strength of mind and body” due to his advanced age.

Emperor Akihito is not believed to have any pressing health problem that requires his immediate abdication. He suffered bronchial pneumonia in 2011 and had heart bypass surgery in 2012. He also reportedly received hormone treatment to prevent a recurrence of prostate cancer following the removal of a tumor in 2003.

However, the heavy burden of official duties including meetings with visiting foreign guests — which numbered about 270 times in 2015 alone — is apparently taking a toll. Since 2009, the Imperial Household Agency has been taking measures to lighten the Emperor’s burden from such duties in consideration of his advanced age, and in May it announced additional steps, including cuts to the number of meetings with heads of government organizations at the Imperial Palace. In a news conference last December marking his 82nd birthday, the Emperor himself said he was “beginning to feel my age, and there were times when I made some mistakes at events.” In 2011, Prince Akishino, his second son, touched on the need to introduce a “retirement age” for official duties that emperors are to perform.

Still, the Emperor, along with Empress Michiko, continues to actively pay official visits both at home and overseas, including one in May to Kumamoto to encourage people hit by the massive earthquakes the previous month and a trip to the Philippines in January to pray for the souls of World War II victims.

Emperor and Empress to visit Philippines
Japanese Emperor Akihito (L) Empress Michiko leave for the Philippines at Haneda airport in Tokyo on Jan. 26, 2016, as Crown Prince Naruhito (2nd from R) and Crown Princess Masako see them off. The Emperor and Empress will make their official visit to the country and attend the 60th anniversary of Japan and the Philippines diplomatic relations. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

A Kyodo News report says that the Emperor, when the issue of reducing the burden of his duties has come up in recent years, has repeatedly told people around him that he would fulfill his official duties as long as he remains in his position and — conversely — hinted that he is ready to abdicate when he becomes unable to sufficiently perform his duties. Such a view seems in line with the Emperor’s earlier remark that his position as “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” is inseparable from his activities in the matters of state as stipulated under the Constitution.

Shinichiro Yamamoto, vice grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, denies that the Emperor has expressed an intention to abdicate, saying that because of his position under the Constitution, the Emperor has refrained from discussing matters that relate to the Imperial family system. If the Imperial House Law is to be revised, the government will likely discuss the matter by creating a panel of experts, which, as past examples of discussions on issues concerning the Imperial family suggest, could take years to reach a conclusion.

Historically, more than half of Japan’s emperors are said to have retired in order to hand over their position to a younger successor — many of them effectively continuing to wield powerful influence in politics. The Imperial House Law set by the Meiji government in 1889 stipulated that the Imperial throne should be passed on to the heir upon the emperor’s death, banning the act of abdication. The postwar revision to the law has no clear provision concerning abdication.

One of the reasons that abdication was prohibited in the 1889 law is said to be the concern that the presence of a retired emperor, along with a reigning emperor, could result in a dual power structure — as had often happened during medieval times when the practice was common.

But the concern — which was indeed legitimate when emperors held political power — should be unwarranted now that they do “not have powers related to government” under the postwar Constitution and thereby are not directly involved in political matters. There will be issues that need to be settled, including rules on abdication as well as the official status of an emperor after retirement. There are also other problems that will need to be addressed if rules are to be revised to allow abdication. At the very least, public discussions should be swiftly launched to see if progress can be made.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole