Powerful logic underscores Akihito’s speech
TOKYO—Citing his advanced age, Emperor Akihito released a video message on Aug. 8 indirectly expressing a desire to step down, and although his words were oblique, the earnestness with which they were said startled not just the Japanese but also other people worldwide. It is unusual for a reigning monarch to announce his abdication, and Japan’s modern imperial household system is one that doesn’t allow abdication by the emperor—a fact that perhaps accounts for the interest of people outside Japan.
But in the course of Japan’s imperial household tradition reaching back to ancient times, instances in which of abdication in favor of a successor are by no means rare. Among the 124 past emperors leading up to Emperor Hirohito, there were as many as 58 instances of abdication, from Emperors Kogyoku (seventh century) to Kokaku (19th century).
As a general trend, the actual business of government was handled by retainers such as the Kuge court nobles or samurai while the emperors presided over state religious ceremonies and functions in a system that separated those holding power from those having authority. The continuation of this system was likely a factor in leading to so many abdications.
The present system of not recognizing abdication and allowing succession to the throne only upon an emperor’s death came into being after Japan became a modern Western-style state. The Meiji Constitution was promulgated in 1889, and the Imperial Household Law promulgated at the same time provided for the institutions relating to the imperial family. In the deliberations on the draft, a provision for the emperor’s abdication was not incorporated into the law in line with the views of the prime minister at the time, Hirobumi Ito. After World War II, the Constitution in 1946 was designed to be democratic, and the old Imperial Household Law was revised and replaced with the present law in 1947. However, the old policy of not providing for abdication was retained.
Modern historians speculate that Ito’s intention in his day was to limit the exercise of the emperor’s will as much as possible, thus preventing it from influencing politics and, at the same time, preventing the imperial household from becoming embroiled in political controversy.
Under Japan’s present Constitution, the emperor has no power to become involved in politics and only engages in ceremonial functions of state. Institutionally, there is no possibility for the emperor to become involved in political controversy, or for some political faction to manipulate him and thereby gain power.
Nevertheless, no provision for abdication was incorporated into the present Imperial Household Law. At the time it was being revised, some intellectuals were calling for Emperor Hirohito to accept responsibility for the war and abdicate. It could be that the government feared that a provision for abdication would lend support to such demands, and therefore maintained the previous system.
Seen in the context of this long history, Emperor Akihito’s recent statements may be seen as turning the Japanese people’s attention again to this issue that should have been resolved in 1947, and urging them to consider it seriously. In the past, the government justified the prohibition of abdication by saying that, if it were permitted, it might enable a former emperor to influence the government or lead to an emperor being forced to abdicate against his will. But under Japan’s present Constitution, the emperor and the imperial family have absolutely no real political power, so this argument is not persuasive. The import of the Emperor’s statements is that this unreasonable system should be revised, making it possible to ensure that the position will always be occupied by a person fully able to discharge his duties as symbol of the state.
In his speech, Emperor Akihito repeatedly spoke of “being with the people.” He also touched on the fact that he has endeavored to touch the lives of the public through his acts as the symbol of the state. It is well-known that Japan’s royal couple have shown great zeal in this regard—repeatedly visiting the sites of natural disasters and going on trips to pay their respects to the victims of war. In this way, the Emperor’s comments clearly reveal his belief that sharing the sufferings of the people and engaging with them in efforts to heal the wounds of history is part of his job. It is precisely because his job includes “being with the people” that it makes sense for the monarch, if necessary, on account of age, to relinquish his position to his successor.
The expression of profound “respect and love” for the people, which Emperor Akihito used in his speech, also appeared in the Imperial Edict known as the “Humanity Declaration” issued by Emperor Hirohito at the beginning of 1946. The activities of Emperors Hirohito and Akihito as two generations of the Japanese imperial family represent their attempt to give life to these words through their concrete actions, to the extent they have been able under the present Constitution, which for the first time defined the emperor as the symbol of the state and the unity of the people.
Emperor Akihito’s recent speech may thus be seen not just as a proposal to amend the present system but also as his personal clarification of the role that Japanese monarchs have sought to play in the past 70 years since the war.
Tadashi Karube is a professor at the School of Legal and Political Studies, University of Tokyo.
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