HOW BEST TO RESPOND TO EMPEROR’S INTENTION TO ABDICATE
The video message of Emperor Akihito indicating his intention to abdicate the throne, nationally televised on August 8, has provided Japanese a chance to reflect on the role of the emperor in today’s Japan. In September, the government set up a six-member committee tasked to find ways to reduce the burdens of official duties on the 82-year-old emperor. On November 14, I expressed my opinion on this important subject as one of 16 experts invited by the panel.
Plainly speaking, how one views this issue depends on whether it is primarily considered as the personal situation of an individual or as a matter of state with broader consequences for the nation as a whole. Therefore, all of us are called on to make every effort to arrive at a consensus aptly blending reason with sentiment.
The essence of the emperor’s message was:
As the emperor designated by the post-war Japanese constitution as the symbol of the state, he has spent his days “together with the people of Japan… (praying) for the peace and happiness of all the people, (trying to) listen to their voices and… (being) close to them in their thoughts.”
Due to his advancing age, however, the emperor is “worried that it may become difficult” to carry out his duties as the symbol of the state with his “whole being…” He feels strongly that reducing his official duties will not resolve this situation, but that, if a regency is to be installed, he will still continue “to be the emperor till the end of his life, even if he is unable to fully carry out his duties…” He closed his 10-minute message by noting that he had decided to express his thoughts directly to the people, sincerely hoping for their understanding of his situation.
The expressions he used were very polite but one could clearly understand he is hoping to abdicate. A vast majority of Japanese sympathize with his message, favoring measures to be worked out smoothly to realize his wish.
Clearly imprinted in the minds of the people are the images of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko comforting the victims at relief centers far and wide across disaster-hit regions, or traveling to World War II battlefields at home and abroad for the repose of those who lost their lives. The people of Japan are well aware and sincerely appreciate that Emperor Akihito has devoted himself to his official duties with his whole being since ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne on January 7, 1989. That is why an overwhelming majority of the Japanese people responded positively to his message, readily pledging to play their part to help him make his wish come true.
I am no exception. As a citizen of this nation, my sentiment for the imperial couple is rooted in my sincere appreciation and deep respect. I always pray earnestly for their peace of mind. Therefore, when I heard the emperor’s message, I very naturally started considering how I could play my own role in helping him meet his wishes.
Perpetuity and Stability
One part of his message in particular caught my attention: “…in two years, we will be welcoming the 39th year of Heisei.” If the emperor is indeed hoping to abdicate the throne by then, we will have very little time to revise the Imperial House Law. That being the case, will special legislation be sufficient to cope with the situation within the limited time available? Legally, it would seem the government would be able to find a solution.
On the other hand, isn’t it possible that we would be creating unforeseen problems by recognizing abdication as an acceptable option? How might this affect the stability of the imperial family and Japan as a whole?
As is well-known, abdication was often implemented in Pre-Meiji Japan. However, when Japan was thrust into the dog-eat-dog international world of the mid-19th century after being forced to terminate its foreign seclusion policy (1639-1853), our predecessors chose to put an end to the abdication system. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was a major reform of Japanese society, placing the emperor at the helm of the secular authority ruling politics, the military, and the economy, replacing the Tokugawa shogunate which no longer could control Japan.
After an era in which the rulers reigned only over domestic affairs, a world of fierce international rivalry emerged which offered no prospect of survival for Japan without vigorously building a stable and solid national foundation. I surmise that our predecessors must have thought that, facing the new era, the imperial household also required perpetuity and stability in more concrete fashion. That, I believe, is one reason why the road to abdication was closed.
Abdication was politically manipulated frequently in our history, sometimes leading to political or social unrest. This could have been another reason to terminate the system.
Some argue that no such manipulation of abdication is possible in today’s Japan. Perhaps so, but how about 100 years—or 200 years—from now? As regards safeguarding the spiritual foundation of our nation, I believe we must take all possible measures now to maintain our nation’s stability over the long term.
The position of prestige that our Meiji forefathers wisely secured for the emperor has since been rigidly maintained by successive emperors. Emperor Showa died as the emperor in 1989 without abdicating his throne, although he was taken ill and unable to perform many of his duties towards the end of his reign.
As we reflect on Emperor Akihito’s message, I am reminded of the need to look back on this history and consider its implications.
Needless to say, we must be sensitive to the fact that the emperor is getting on in years, but this is a matter to be discussed from a perspective entirely different from what concerns the future course of the nation. We must first come to grips with this important point. To put my conclusion first, I favor installing a regency rather than implementing abdication. We must make the same choice the nation has made since the restoration of the Meiji Emperor; an emperor remains the emperor for life. A simple addition of just three words— “or advancing age”—to Clause 2, Article 16 of the current Imperial Household Law will be sufficient.
Shinto Rites: Central to Emperor’s Life
Here, I wish to stress once again that the important thing is for the government and the public to thoughtfully sympathize with the genuine feelings the emperor has expressed through his message, making maximum efforts to realize his wishes. All of us must do our best. That is what people all across this country expect. And I believe that is why the experts’ panel has proposed a reduction of the emperor’s heavy official duties as the specific purpose of its discussions.
One thing can be accomplished expeditiously. The emperor’s current tasks comprise (1) constitutional functions, (2) official functions, (3) Shinto rites, and (4) personal activities. Based on the long tradition of the Imperial Household, performing Shinto rites ought to be the first priority of the emperor. But General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, designated the Shinto rites the emperor performs to pray for peace and the well-being of the people as a private activity.
I propose that the order above be rearranged, in essence, prioritizing (3) (his routine of daily Shinto rites), followed by (1) and (2). This way, there should no need to consult the constitution or the Imperial House Law. On his visits to domestic or overseas destinations, the emperor is known to make it a rule to habitually perform traditional Shinto rites between tightly scheduled events. By setting aside plenty of time for this traditional activity for the emperor, a pattern of daily life revolving around religious rites performed for centuries by his predecessors would become possible.
After changing the order of his priorities, and making each of the required activities less burdensome, a new burden-sharing scheme could be established under which the emperor’s two sons—Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino—come to support him. Since it is possible to have the two princes act as his proxy even under the existing system, there should be no problem in figuring out which of his present duties could safely be spared.
In reality, little can be done under the existing law to alleviate the emperor’s burden. But I am hoping that, through earnest efforts and some ingenuity, combined with the introduction of a system of regency, we will be able to arrive at a solution that will meet the hopes and expectations of the emperor.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 730 in the November 24, 2016 issue of The Weekly Shincho)