Emperor’s message shows dilemma facing Japan’s imperial system


TOKYO — In an unprecedented video message released Aug. 8 on his views about his role, Japan’s elderly emperor expressed his concerns that his age and health could one day mean he cannot fully perform his duties.

After media reports that 82-year-old Emperor Akihito wishes to abdicate surprised the nation in mid-July, his televised statement presented the dilemma he faces in his role as “symbol of the state.”

His concerns bring to the fore the lack of provision for an emperor to abdicate under the Imperial House Law as well as his right to retire, experts said.

“There are unreasonable aspects to Japan’s imperial system,” said Shojiro Sakaguchi, a law professor at Hitotsubashi University, noting that the emperor’s rights are restricted under the system, including the right to express his views and marry freely.

“To justify the restriction of his human rights to that degree, he should have the choice to become emperor or not and one way to secure that right is to enable him to abdicate if he wishes,” Sakaguchi said.

The current law only envisages succession after death and so would need to be changed, or special legislation would have to be enacted, for the emperor to hand over the throne to Crown Prince Naruhito, 56.

Emperor Akihito ascended to the chrysanthemum throne at age 55 upon the death in 1989 of his 87-year-old father Emperor Hirohito.

Emperor Akihito is the first emperor to have ascended the throne under Japan’s postwar Constitution, which stipulates the emperor shall be “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.” In the video message, he said that he has long been thinking about the role of such an emperor.

His father, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, renounced in January 1946 the widely held belief that he was a living god, following Japan’s defeat in World War II.

The Constitution stipulates that the emperor “shall not have powers related to government” and “shall perform only such acts in matters of state as are provided for,” such as the appointment of the prime minister as designated by the Diet, the promulgation of laws and the convocation of the Diet.

In performing such duties, Emperor Akihito signed and applied seals to documents in around 1,000 cases last year, in addition to attending a ceremony to convene a regular Diet session and ceremonies for newly appointed foreign ambassadors, which occurred almost weekly during certain parts of the year.

Furthermore, the emperor meets various guests at the Imperial Palace, including award recipients and foreign dignities, while conducting ritual ceremonies to pray throughout the year.

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