Solving Japan's Abdication Question

Solving Japan's Abdication Question
Photo Credit: thierry ehrmann CC BY 2.0

What you need to know

Japan's 82-year-old Emperor, who underwent heart bypass surgery in 2012 but is currently not believed to have any pressing health problems, has indicated his wish to retire.

As the government’s panel of experts begins discussions this week on the questions raised by Emperor Akihito’s expressed wish to abdicate, the Abe administration, contrary to what the prime minister says, is reportedly seeking to wrap up the issue quickly. The aim, apparently, is to propose a one-off measure to the Diet next year that would be applicable only to the current Emperor, instead of institutionalizing abdication by revising the Imperial House Law.

Prompt action to address the questions would be desirable, given the Emperor’s advanced age. Opinion polls indicate that more than 80 percent of the people support allowing the Emperor to step down. Still, Imperial abdication is an issue that closely relates to an emperor’s status under the Constitution as the “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” The administration needs to make sure that any conclusion will be consistent with the Imperial system as defined by the Constitution.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is said to be leaning against touching the Imperial House Law itself, partly out of concern that the process could extend the discussion to other questions surrounding the Imperial family, including whether to allow an empress to reign and open up Imperial succession to the maternal lineage — an idea opposed by conservatives who cherish male succession as called for under the law. An advisory panel to the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the 2000s proposed extending Imperial succession to maternal lineage — given the dearth of boys among the youngest generation of the Imperial family — but the issue was shelved following the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006 to the family of Prince Akishino, the brother of Crown Prince Naruhito. However, it is an issue that cannot be shelved indefinitely — if sustainability of the Imperial family is to be sought.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/達志影像
People watch a large screen showing Japanese Emperor Akihito's video address in Tokyo, Japan, August 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

In his Aug. 8 video message, the 82-year-old Emperor, who underwent heart bypass surgery in 2012 but is currently not believed to have any pressing health problems, indicated his wish to retire by citing concern that he could become unable to perform his official duties as symbol of the state due to his advanced age and declining health.

That he avoided directly mentioning abdication, and the government carefully trying not to look like it is acting in direct response to his words, illustrates the sensitivities surrounding the status of the Emperor who “shall perform only acts in matters of state as provided for” in the Constitution and “shall not have powers related to government.”

The Constitution says the Imperial throne shall be dynastic in accordance with the 1947 Imperial House Law, which dictates that emperors will be succeeded upon death by a male heir. Although it was not uncommon for emperors to abdicate for much of the history of the Imperial family, the succession rules since the Meiji Restoration have had no provision for abdication. The government earlier explained that the presence of a retired emperor and a reining emperor could create a dual power structure — which was indeed common in medieval times when retired emperors controlled their younger successors — and that providing for abdication might result in an emperor effectively being forced to step down against his will.

The panel of experts will need to sort out how these problems can be overcome if abdication is to be allowed. The concern over a dual power structure should be unwarranted today, given that emperors are not supposed to wield political power, but the risk may remain that emperors’ status, with its enormous authority, could be used politically. There is an argument that the status of an emperor as symbol of the state based on the people’s will is not consistent with him being able to step down of his own will. Institutionalizing abdication may expose various other questions about the postwar Imperial system under the Constitution.

Abe has said his administration will not set any timeline for reaching a conclusion on the issue and will first listen to a broad range of opinions without preconceptions. But the choice of panel members — who do not include experts on constitutional issues and the Imperial system but will instead hold hearings with experts in those fields — appears to reflect Abe’s wish to avoid protracted discussions. Based on the outcome of the panel’s discussions, the prime minister reportedly will seek a one-off measure for abdication applicable only to Emperor Akihito, hopefully to be endorsed by both his ruling coalition and opposition parties to present it as a solution based on “the will of the people.”

However, this is not be an issue that pertains only to the current emperor. It concerns the postwar Imperial system itself. As the Emperor said in his video message, what should be explored in the discussions is a solution that would be “best for the country, for the people and also for the Imperial family members who follow” after him, so that “the duties of the emperor as the symbol of the state can continue steadily without a break.” Questions passed over this time will be certain to come back in the near future.

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

Editor: Edward White