On Monday, in a ten-minute video, Japan’s emperor spoke directly to his people, asking them to allow him to give up the throne prior to his death. In the closed world of Japan’s imperial family, where the Imperial Household Agency largely manages and represents the family’s affairs, Akihito’s decision to challenge precedent seems striking. Yet he also spoke directly to the Japanese people. Now in his eighty-second year, Emperor Akihito has sat on the throne for twenty-seven years, assuming his position upon the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito, and ushering in a new era in Japan’s history. His reign is called Heisei—roughly translated as an era where peace can be realized—and yet the Heisei years have been full of change—and challenge—for the Japanese people.
Under the 1947 Constitution, Japan’s emperor serves as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” with no direct role in political affairs. Yet he continues to act as Japan’s official head of state, welcoming all state visitors as well as all new ambassadors assigned to his country. Emperor Akihito is the second to serve in this new symbolic role. His father, the Showa Emperor, was twenty-five when he assumed the throne in 1926, and he would go on to be associated with Japan’s tumultuous years of domestic social upheaval and military expansion abroad that led to defeat and foreign occupation.
Akihito in contrast has no direct personal association with the war, and by the time he assumed the role of emperor, he was a mature fifty-five. Undoubtedly, his ascension to the throne in 1989 provided him with a unique window on managing the process of succession after his father’s protracted illness and passing. In his video, the emperor spoke very personally about the challenges he sees ahead as he ages, expressing concern that he will be increasingly unable to fulfill the duties expected of him. This apparently was not a sudden decision. According to NHK coverage of Monday’s video, the emperor had expressed the idea of abdicating five years ago to the empress and to the staff of the Imperial Household Agency. Reluctantly, they have acquiesced to his wishes.
Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, have had a decidedly postwar image. They met and married in 1959, when Japan was on the verge of the spectacular “double digit” economic growth that would catapult it to global recognition as an “economic superpower.” She is the first commoner to marry into the imperial family, and together with many Japanese families, they raised their children amidst an economically prosperous and democratic Japan. When they were crown prince and princess, the emperor and empress traveled abroad often showing the world a new, more cosmopolitan Japanese imperial family.
Despite his largely ceremonial role, Emperor Akihito has been an important Japanese voice abroad. In 1992, just three years after his father’s death, he and Empress Michiko visited China undertaking the deeply sensitive task of demonstrating Japan’s desire for postwar reconciliation. The imperial couple has also visited other sites of World War II battles, including Saipan and Palau, to honor those who died in locales across the Pacific. In 1994, the couple also visited eleven American cities of the United States. As a student at Columbia University, I participated in the ceremony that welcomed then-Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko to our campus, where they spoke to us about our interests in their country. But it was their stopover in Honolulu, Hawaii, to pay their respects to those who lost their lives in World War II at Punch Bowl Cemetery, a few miles from Pearl Harbor, which drew the most attention.
More recently, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko’s role in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011 showed just how important the imperial family is to the Japanese people. When elected officials labored to respond to the catastrophe after the earthquake, Emperor Akihito took to the airwaves to call upon the Japanese people to come together to overcome this tremendous crisis. He called on all Japanese “to work hand in hand, treating each other with compassion, in order to overcome these trying times.” Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced rolling blackouts after the loss of power following the crippling of reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, and the emperor insisted that the imperial compound would also shut out its lights and conserve energy along with all Japanese households. In the weeks that stretched into months and then years of recovery, the imperial couple repeatedly visited the devastated Tohoku region, meeting those in shelters and temporary housing, listening to their heartbreaking stories of loss and encouraging their recovery.
The emperor’s desire to step down seems a deeply personal one, and yet it opens up some thorny political questions. The role of Japan’s emperor is determined by the constitution (Article One through Eight), but the rules for succession are determined by law and thus are subject to parliamentary debate. The Imperial House Law sets forth the relationship between the imperial family and the state, the terms of their succession, and the role of the imperial institution in Japanese society. To change any of these requires new legislation and, as is the case with any government sponsored bill, would open the way for a broader and possibly contentious debate between ruling and opposition parties.
Re-legislating the terms of succession, particularly now as the prime minister and others seek to consider constitutional revision, seems a delicate political task. In his brief remarks following the emperor’s video address to the nation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he took seriously the emperor’s wishes, and noted he would take this under consideration as his government considered how to respond appropriately. The Abe cabinet could draft a very narrow bill that speaks only to Emperor Akihito’s request to step down, or it could consider broader amendment of the succession process.
Japanese government has already considered amending the law that governs the imperial family and its succession. In December 2004, an advisory committee was formed to consider “a stable succession,” bringing ten leaders together to consider the succession process. The crown prince had no male heir, and there was concern over the lack of an eligible successor. Many believed the law should be changed to allow female succession so that Princess Aiko, the daughter of the crown prince and princess, could then become Japan’s first female heir. The advisory committee report in fact argued for changing the emphasis on male primogeniture and for making it possible for a female to inherit the throne. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in his opening address to the Diet in 2006 noted his intention to submit a bill that year for deliberation, however, the next month, the palace announced the pregnancy of the crown prince’s younger brother Prince Fumihito of Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko of Akishino. In September that year, the princess gave birth to a son, obviating the need to change the law.
Emperor Akihito situates his own predicament within the larger social trends in Japan, and his statement repeatedly referenced the feelings of the Japanese people. His statement opened by acknowledging that “in the midst of a rapidly aging society…your emperor, too, is advancing in age,” yet his message seemed to speak to a broader concern over how his family can best serve in their role as their nation’s symbol. Having watched his father’s protracted demise in 1989, and the impact that had on the day-to-day lives of many Japanese, Emperor Akihito clearly does not want to create that burden for his people. He believes the job requires a younger and fitter occupant. How this next generation might see their roles is also an important part of the story of succession. His three grown children are all married with families of their own, families not unlike those of other Japanese but for their particular role as symbols of the nation. Yet their lives are highly choreographed, and constrained.
The question now is whether Japan’s political and social leaders can effectively translate their Emperor’s desire into a matter-of-fact process for succession without other political causes interceding in the debate. Both on the right and the left, constitutional scholars and others note with caution the possibility that changing the terms of succession could open the way for political influence over the imperial family. Interestingly, there seems little public inference at the moment about the danger of the imperial family asserting influence over the state. Tampering with the law makes many nervous about opening the way for larger—perhaps more conflicted—debates about social change and governance in Japan.
On August 8, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga echoed the prime minister’s caution when asked about whether this would touch upon Japan’s constitution, and emphasized that the Abe cabinet did not “think that this was a constitutional issue as it did not influence nation’s governance.”
Clearly, the Heisei emperor has opened up an important conversation, however gingerly managed by the government, about how to improve his family’s ability to best serve the interests of the Japanese people.