On Monday afternoon in Tokyo, Japanese Emperor Akihito plans to release a rare video message to the public. Exactly what the 82-year-old will say is unclear, but there is widespread speculation that he will indirectly signal his wish to abdicate and pass the Chrysanthemum Throne to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56. Japan’s Imperial Household Law, however, does not have any provision for abdication.
If parliament opens debate on revising the law, it could also rekindle the controversial matter of whether Japan should allow women to inherit the throne. That is not currently permitted either.
Akihito became emperor in 1989 upon the death of his father, Hirohito, who until the end of World War II in 1945, was revered as a godlike figure. In recent years, Akihito has experienced health problems, including pneumonia and heart surgery. Akihito and Empress Michiko have two sons and a daughter.
The emperor’s role is ceremonial, so what’s the big deal with all of this?
Q: What does Japan’s emperor do?
A:: Under Japan’s postwar democratic system, the emperor is the symbol of the nation but is supposed to stay out of politics. He carries out some ceremonial duties, such as receiving new ambassadors and giving out national awards. Akihito is known as the “people’s emperor,” and he has made it a high priority to comfort victims of disasters and champion marginalized people such as the disabled and residents of remote islands.
As far back as the 1960s, he was a supporter of the Paralympics — a rather radical notion at a time in Japan where being handicapped was regarded with shame and embarrassment. He has traveled to Okinawa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to console people deeply affected by World War II, and has sought to be an emissary for postwar reconciliation and peace in Asia, visiting numerous countries touched by battles. After the massive earthquake and tsunami of 2011, he released a video message to the nation urging people to not give up hope.
In a country that has experienced profound political, economic and social change since 1945, the emperor, while basically powerless, is a strong symbol of tradition and national unity.
Q: What’s he going to say and why might he want to step down?
A: Experts say Akihito is unlikely to directly speak about abdicating, lest he appear to be involving himself in politics, but he will hint at the need for the government to revise the Imperial Household Law.
“I think he’s going to give a mini-lecture about how people get old and when they get old they can’t do what they used to do,” said Kenneth Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University in Oregon and author of “The People’s Emperor.” “He recognizes that it’s crazy to require emperors to perform what is a very heavy schedule of public duties if they simply can’t anymore.”
Q: Is there anything political about this?
A: Yes. The Diet, Japan’s parliament, would need to change the Imperial Household Law to allow for abdication. But once lawmakers start talking about revising the law, the issue of allowing females to ascend to the throne may come up. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made women’s empowerment and women’s participation in the workforce one of the signature issues of his administration, but his conservative base of supporters regards the idea of female succession as anathema.
“The big schtick for nationalists in Japan when it comes to the imperial line is that Japan has an unbroken line,” says Ruoff. “What they mean is that it’s been unbroken, passed down through the male bloodline. So if you allow a woman on the throne who then gives birth to a child who sits on the throne, then the unbroken imperial line has been broken. And these people seem to think that therefore Japan comes to an end. Even though the scholars all say the unbroken line is a bunch of nonsense.”
Q: So who’s in line to take the throne?
A: As eldest son of Akihito, Crown Prince Naruhito is next in line. Naruhito and his wife, Masako, have a 14-year-old daughter, but she is not eligible to ascend to the throne.
Next in line after Naruhito are his younger brother, Prince Akishino, and Akishino’s son, Prince Hisahito, who is now 9 years old. Akishino’s first two children were girls, and in the years before Hisahito was born in 2006, there was intense debate in Japan about who would be the imperial heir if neither Naruhito nor Akishino had a son.
Q: But hasn’t Japan had empresses in the past?
A: Yes, there have been eight, but all are regarded as “caretaker empresses” — their offspring never succeeded them. According to the official history, after their reigns, the line reverted to a prince of the bloodline.
Q: How is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe going to respond?
A: Some people believe that Akihito regards Abe’s positions on wartime history, Japan’s postwar pacifism and imperial succession as too right-wing.
Japan has just held elections that solidified the control of Abe’s party in parliament, and he might be able to orchestrate a fast revision of the Imperial Household Law to allow for abdication. Whether there’s a bigger agenda at work behind Akihito’s address remains to be seen.
“There are all sorts of rumors swirling around that Akihito doesn’t care for Prime Minister Abe,” says Ruoff. “There might be some validity to it, but we have no concrete evidence whatsoever. So until he dies and perhaps documents come out … we can’t prove it in any way.
Q: What about the crown prince’s wife, Masako, who’s long shunned a high-profile role?
A: Masako Owada gave up a promising career as a diplomat when she wed Naruhito in 1993. The pressures of imperial life apparently caused her significant emotional distress, and she remained out of the spotlight for years. Recently she’s been making some public appearances at museums and athletic events.
Q: So what kind of emperor and empress might Naruhito and Masako be?
A: Naruhito is interested in water conservation issues, but what other signature causes he might take up is unclear. “Much of what Akihito and Michiko did when they became emperor and empress — and what they’ve been doing for the last 27 years — they were already doing as crown prince and princess,” says Ruoff. “It’s a little different with Naruhito. The fact that Masako has been so disabled means their symbolic contours are not as clarified as they might be at this stage in this game.”
But unlike the big difference between the roles of Akihito and his father, there will be much more of a sense of continuity from Akihito to Naruhito.
“It’s far less dramatic than when Akihito became emperor because you had a situation where Hirohito was raised under the prewar system; he was raised to believe he was divine,” says Ruoff. “Akihito was raised under a completely different system. He had to figure out how to make the monarchy comparable with democracy.”