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Q&A: The role and future of the Japanese emperor

Referring to his weakening health, Japan's revered Emperor Akihito has hinted at his desire to give up his official role as the nation's monarch. This has set off a number of questions about what happens next.

Referring to his weakening health, Japan’s revered Emperor Akihito has hinted at his desire to give up his official role as the nation’s monarch. This has set off a number of questions about what happens next.
In a rare speech televised throughout Japan on Monday, August 8, 82-year-old Emperor Akihito spoke in length about his deteriorating health, which he said was increasingly preventing him from carrying out his constitutional duties. The speech was widely interpreted as a call to Japanese politicians to pave the way for his abdication, which is currently not allowed under law.

The speech follows recent reports suggesting that the emperor wanted to step down in a few years, a move that would be unprecedented in modern Japan.

“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being, as I have done until now,” Akihito said.

DW answers some of the questions regarding the Japanese monarch and his potential succession.

What is the emperor’s role in Japanese politics?

Japan’s postwar constitution bars the emperor from any active political involvement. Even expressing his desire to abdicate the throne would be seen as interfering too strongly in the Japanese political process, given that it would require amending the nation’s laws. That’s why it’s believed that the emperor didn’t expressly refer to abdicating the throne in his speech.

The emperor is meant to act as a symbolic sovereign representing the state and the unity of the people. His responsibilities mainly include performing official ceremonial duties.

For instance, the current monarch has been active in promoting reconciliation efforts both within and outside of Japan after World War II, which was fought by the East Asian country under his father’s name, Emperor Hirohito. To that end, Akihito has visited and offered prayers for all the fallen at former battle sites like Saipan and Palau.

What relationship does the emperor have with the Japanese people?

The emperor and the imperial family, regarded as the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy dating back over 2,000 years, are revered in Japan. When Akihito’s predecessor Hirohito died in 1989, weeks of heavy mourning ensured, bringing society, as Akihito said in his speech, to a “standstill.”

Akihito, who married a commoner in the year 1959, remains very popular with the Japanese public. And many seem to support his wish to step down from the throne. A survey by the Kyodo news agency last week showed that a vast majority of the Japanese public stands in favor of legal changes that would allow for abdication.

Is the emperor allowed to abdicate the throne?

At present, there is no provision in Japanese constitution that allows an emperor to step down and hand his responsibilities to a successor. The Imperial House Law would have to be changed to facilitate such a process. Many say that an attempt to do so would trigger heated backlash from conservatives.

Satoru Yamamoto, a senior official at the Imperial Household Agency, said in 1984 that the Imperial House Law does not allow an emperor to abdicate because it is designed “to stabilize the status of the emperor.”

There is an option within the Imperial Household Law that allows for the crown prince to take over as regent if his father were incapacitated. But Akihito seemed to dismiss this idea, which he noted would not “change the fact that the emperor continues to be emperor until the end of his life.” He is said to strongly believe that the emperor’s fulfillment of his ceremonial duties is a necessary enactment of his constitutional role.

Following Akihito’s speech, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that, in view of the emperor’s age and the burden of his official duties, it was necessary to consider what steps could be taken.

Who will succeed Akihito?

The current heir to the Chrysanthemum throne is 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, who has been gradually assumed monarchical responsibilities as Akihito cut back on his official duties. Currently, only males can inherit the throne. And as Naruhito’s only child is a daughter, the succession would then pass on to Naruhito’s brother, Prince Akishino, and then to his nine-year-old nephew Hisahito.

Allowing female succession is a touchy subject in Japan, with many conservative elements in society strongly opposing such a move.

Topics: Emperor Japan

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