At the ripe old age of 82, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Akihito of Japan has long since passed the age that many other Japanese would usually enter retirement by at least a couple of decades.
After succeeding his father, Emperor Showa, upon the latter’s death on 7 January 1989, Emperor Akihito’s reign has largely been marked by Japan’s continued economic boom, subsequent bust, from the early to late 90s, before its modest recovery in the aftermath of the Global Recession in 2008. The Japan he came to guide as Emperor was very different to the one his father inherited and has changed even further over the years.
Now, citing concerns of his age and ailing health, His Imperial Majesty has hinted in a rare televised address earlier this year that he would very much like to retire, and allow his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to assume the Japanese throne. As of yet, there has been no official confirmation from the Imperial Household Agency, which regulates the affairs of the Japanese monarchy, one way or the other as to whether this will come to pass.
Presently the Imperial Household Act, which oversees the Japanese order of succession and management of the Imperial Family, has no guidelines on how to proceed with an incumbent Emperor (or Empress) abdicating in favour of their heir. Such an event would require an amendment in order to describe the process and ensure a smooth transition of authority, and it’s on this note that prominent Japanese politicians and spokespeople are starting to find disagreement on how best to proceed. Or whether there should even be an abdication at all.
Hearings held by a panel of legal and political experts, chaired by the honorary chairman of the Japanese Business Federation, have shown that of the eleven who attended, over half have expressed negative thoughts about the prospects of an abdication by the Emperor. One such critic, journalist Yoshiko Sakurai, drew particular confusion as she had previously voiced support for the Emperor resigning from the Chrysanthemum Throne. Sakurai later clarified that she considered there to be a difference between her concerns for the Emperor personally and her concerns for the Japanese state as a whole.
Another speaker, Professor Hidehiko Kasahara of Keio University, stated that he “would not oppose an abdication if it was supported by the [Japanese] Diet”, but stressed that it should not become institutionalised and that maintaining the stability of the Imperial Household would be “difficult”.
Amongst those who are supportive of the Japanese Emperor’s abdication, there is still disagreement as to how this should be implemented, with divisions between those who wish for a special law specific to His Imperial Majesty, and those who wish for an amendment to Imperial Household Act. Further discussions on the matter will continue later next month, with the hopeful expectation of a decision after the New Year. The Japanese Diet will likewise discuss the matter among themselves, with the Democratic Party proposing a permanent law regulating abdication for future Emperors. With the Japanese Government already courting controversy with their desire to revise the Constitution, this may well create further points of contention. In light of continuing disagreements, the debate may well continue for a long while yet.
While without precedent in Japan’s modern history since the Meiji Restoration, and the later post-Occupation Constitution, the abdication of Japanese emperors is nothing new. The last emperor to voluntarily relinquish his throne was Emperor Kokaku in 1817, who was the first Emperor to maintain his throne past the age of 40 for nearly two centuries. Most of his predecessors either died young or were forcibly retired by the Tokugawa Shogunate. For much of Japan’s history, it was common for Emperors to abdicate and retreat into what was seen as a well-deserved retirement from the rigours of office, typically leaving the throne to a younger designated successor. They would remain with a special title and pension, frequently becoming monks, scholars or poets.