A Rare Television Address by Japan’s Emperor

On August 8, Emperor Akihito of Japan, in a rare televised address to the nation, referenced his declining health and Japan’s aging society as segue to sharing his personal reflections “on a desirable role for the emperor when the emperor, too, becomes advanced in age.” Akihito, 82, is required to serve for life according to Japanese law, but his remarks fueled speculation that he may wish to abdicate the throne. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the emperor’s remarks should be taken seriously but refrained from commenting in detail on such an eventuality.

Q1: Why didn’t the emperor address the issue of abdication directly?

A1: Japan’s postwar constitution stipulates that the emperor is a symbol of the state and shall not have powers related to government. The emperor is prohibited from offering any commentary that might be construed as political, and Akihito therefore did not refer directly to abdication, for which there is no provision under current law. However, he did appear to hint at the issue obliquely when he noted that it is not possible to reduce the emperor’s duties as a symbol of the state even at an advanced age and that, while a regent may be appointed (presumably his son) if the emperor cannot fulfill his duties, this does not change the fact that the emperor serves until the end of his life. Prime Minister Abe noted that he took seriously the fact that the emperor spoke directly to the public about his age and the burden of his duties and that there is a need to think about what can be done.

Q2: How were the remarks interpreted?

A2: Akihito’s declining health—he has had prostate cancer and heart surgery—appears to be a major factor, and he referred more than once to his physical condition in his 10-minute address. There is also speculation in some domestic and foreign media that the emperor has expressed disappointment with Abe’s security policies. (Last year the government passed a series of defense policy reforms intended to increase Japan’s role in security affairs, such as exercising the right of collective self-defense or coming to the defense of an ally under attack.) But that interpretation is based on rather opaque remarks by Akihito about the wartime past that certainly are not read that way by a majority of media, politicians, and government officials.

Q3: How will the government address this issue?

A3: The Diet (parliament) would have to revise imperial household law to allow for abdication and could begin examining this possibility during the next session scheduled to begin in September. Some media reports suggested the Abe government will establish a committee of experts to study the issue. Public opinion appears to favor the change—an Asahi Shimbun poll over the weekend revealed 84 percent approval for the notion—but the pace at which this debate will unfold is unclear. What is clear is that Emperor Akihito sent an indirect signal that it might be time to reform Japan’s imperial traditions.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair.

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