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Japanese Emperor’s Possible Abdication | 公益財団法人フォーリン・プレスセンター(FPCJ)

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Japanese Emperor’s Possible Abdication

post date : 2016.09.06

aflo_LKGG740578In a video message released on August 8, Emperor Akihito hinted at a desire to abdicate the throne. Twenty-eight years have passed since the 82-year-old emperor’s ascension to the throne, and this message surprised many citizens even though the emperor avoided directly mentioning the constitution, which forbids him from making political statements. The message has led to debates over the state of the emperor as a symbol, and the role of the Imperial House.


(Photo: Pool/AP/AFLO)



Kazutoshi Hando, Masayasu Hosaka, “The human emperor we saw,” Bungeishunju, September issue

In a conversation between writer Kazutoshi Hando and non-fiction writer Masayasu Hosaka in Bungeishunju, Hando suggests that the emperor’s wishes “should be honestly accepted,” and that the message, which incorporated a broad view of history, means that the citizens of Japan, who hold sovereign power, “must engage in a series of debates.”


Hando also provides his analysis of what led up to this message: “The emperor may have gained confidence that the next generation of the imperial family will carry on the new concept of the role of the emperor, created under the new constitution by the imperial family themselves.” He also mentions that the fundamental human rights outlined in the constitution “do not apply to the emperor.” He states that “This is where I believe there is a significant inconsistency between the constitution and the Imperial House Law. Not only does the emperor not have any individual rights, he is also not permitted to speak his own opinion freely or to act freely,” pointing out a core issue of “the emperor as a symbol of the state.”


Takeshi Hara, “The next generation of the emperor as a symbol of the state,” Sekai, September issue

In an essay in Sekai, Professor Takeshi Hara of The Open University of Japan writes that from the Meiji period (1868-1912) until Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Japanese imperial system “sometimes prioritized reforming the system over the will of the emperor himself,” and that, like the emperor’s announcement in 2013 that he would have a small tomb as opposed to the trend of large imperial tombs since the Meiji period, this message “is part of the same trend to reform those last parts of the modern imperial system.” Historically, emperors have abdicated numerous times from the Asuka period (6th to 7th century) up to the Edo period (1603-1868), and he argues “In a way this is a return to a long-standing tradition of the imperial system dating from before the Meiji period.”


In the case that the emperor did abdicate, Hara mentions it could lead to “an extremely uncommon situation” with the emperor, the former emperor and the emperor’s brother (as crown prince) all present at once. He emphasizes that “Implying a desire to abdicate despite this situation displays the emperor’s strong concerns over the future of the imperial system.”


In response to the point of view that this news is related to the Abe administration’s goal of constitutional reform, Hara states that “The current emperor, who has supported protecting the constitution since he first took the throne, may have tried to suggest reducing the reforms to a reasonable size, including the system of the emperor as a symbol.”


Masakazu Yamazaki, “The emperor has always been a symbol,” Chuokoron, September issue

In an essay in Chuokoron, playwright and critic Masakazu Yamazaki writes that in the history of the imperial system, “Very early on, the political power and symbolic authority of the Japanese emperor were separated.” He mentions “Historically, the symbolic authority of the emperor was almost never denied,” and argues that a separation of “authority” and “power” are at the core of the imperial system.


Along these lines, Yamazaki notes that if the emperor had actual power then Japan’s defeat in World War II would have been the greatest threat the imperial system had ever faced, but instead “Through the logic that in losing the war, Japan’s power was overcome, but its symbolic authority remained, this crisis was overcome.” He argues that this resulted in the birth of the system of pure symbolic authority with “the emperor as a symbol of the state.” His viewpoint is that the emperor as a symbol is not a product of the US’s occupation policies after the war, and he suggests that “The shape of the modern emperor as a symbol’s authority has reached a state of completion over the nearly 30 years of the current emperor’s reign.” Regarding the future of the imperial system, Yamazaki points out that “Currently, there are no political movements criticizing the emperor or seeking to eliminate the imperial system.”


Although he did not touch directly on whether he approved of the emperor’s message or not, he stated that “The people of Japan, including me, accept the current state of the imperial family, with respect and affection.” He also argued “Limiting the line of succession to a direct male descendant, while also remaining monogamous, is nearly impossible from a biological perspective…. It seems reasonable that the Imperial House include females in the line of succession.”


Tsuneyasu Takeda, “Why was there no abdication since the Meiji period,” Seiron, September issue

Although many conservative and right-leaning critics are against or cautious towards abdication, in an essay in Seiron, author Tsuneyasu Takeda argues that seizen tai’i [abdication while alive] references the concept of death and so shouldn’t be used in regards to the emperor, and that tai’I [abdication] “simply means leaving a position, and is a truly dull word,” and instead the word jou’i [abdication, but with the meaning of passing the position to someone else] should be used instead.


However, the current Imperial House Law does not include any mention of a method for the emperor to abdicate and cede his position if he desc ides to . Implementation of a system for abdication has been considered three times since the Meiji Restoration, and Takeda is of the opinion that reforming the Imperial House Law to include a system for abdication should be approached cautiously. He mentions the three reasons that were given for not introducing a system for abdication in 1984 (the previous Emperor Showa): 1) Allowing abdication could lead to the issue of negative influence from the former emperor, as has happened historically; 2) The possibility of the emperor being forced to abdicate against his will; and 3) The emperor arbitrarily abdicating is incompatible with his role as a symbol. “If a system for abdication is introduced, then there is the risk of that system being used arbitrarily.” Takeda argues “If a special law is introduced to allow the emperor to abdicate, instead of implementing a system for abdication, these issues will be avoided.”


Hidetsugu Yagi, “There is no need to reform the Imperial House Law,” Seiron, September issue

In a column in Seiron, Professor Hidetsugu Yagi of Reitaku University made clear his position of being against reforming the Imperial House Law to allow abdication, writing “The Imperial House law is a permanent law, and adding provisions for a system for abdication could cause confusion over the line of succession and the role of the imperial family…. Reforming the Imperial House Law must be approached very carefully.”


Regarding the proposal to pass a special law allowing only the current emperor to abdicate, Yagi states “Even a special law would create precedent for abdication, and significant research is necessary on what legal position the emperor would have after abdication and other issues,” noting that he is against the idea.


Shoichi Watanabe, “The eternal Imperial Family,” Seiron, September issue

Sophia University Professor Shoichi Watanabe, in an essay in Seiron, declares that “This issue is, in essence, not a particularly difficult one,” and suggests “The decision can be made simply by following the customs and traditions of the Imperial Household, with the cabinet and the Imperial Household Council approving that decision.” Specifically, the professor argued “Instead of reforming the Imperial House Law to allow abdication, which will take quite some time, it is clear that it would be better to appoint a regent.” It is a historical fact that before becoming emperor, Emperor Showa acted as regent for his father, and Watanabe states clearly that “If there are no regulations, then following custom should be enough.”


*This page was created independently by Foreign Press Center Japan, and does not reflect the opinion of the Japanese government or any other organization.

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