With Emperor Akihito’s abdication made official and expected sometime in 2019, Japan has been rife with speculation as to what the people can expect following the handover of the Chrysanthemum Throne to the next generation. This is, after all, the first abdication of a Japanese emperor for two hundred years, and certainly the first to occur under the current constitution. Although no mechanism for such an event is provided by the Constitution, a special law has been passed by the Japanese Diet that will allow the Emperor to retire from his office, and for Crown Prince Naruhito to inherit in his place. This is strictly a one-time deal and does not provide a legal means for future emperors likewise to retire.
While the law has been passed, there are still many details to sort out, such as how the transfer should go ahead, what the current Emperor should be called upon his retirement, and where he should reside.
Among other questions being asked about how Japan’s monarchy can expect to operate with the former emperor still living, Prince Akishino was able to assure his future subjects that all public duties and responsibilities will be passed over to his brother, the Crown Prince, upon his succession. Emperor Akihito would retire altogether from public life and would have no further role in public affairs.
Under the current constitution, although the Emperor is entirely devoid of any and all political power — not even possessing token Crown Prerogatives as is the case with his European peers — he is expected to perform certain ceremonial roles. Chief among them is the opening and closing of the Japanese Diet, appointing the Prime Minister as designated by said Diet, and receiving foreign ambassadors. He also fulfils a religious function, serving as the High Priest of the Japanese Shinto faith.
For his part, Prince Akishino has indicated a willingness to take on the duties of Crown Prince after the change of power but admitted it’d require consultation first.
“This is unprecedented,” he said. “So there are many things I cannot imagine.”
In the past, it was common for retired emperors to retain influence within the Japanese court, which would sometimes result in intrigue between the former emperor and the current one. This led to concerns about whether there’d be a similar situation upon Emperor Akihito’s retirement. However given the nature of the Constitution, and the motives behind the Emperor’s wish to retire, it’s unlikely this would occur today.
Traditionally retired emperors became monks, poets and scholars in their twilight years. It remains to be seen how His Imperial Majesty intends to spend his retirement.