Concern grows over ways to reduce duties of aging Emperor

With Japanese Emperor Akihito set to turn 80 in 2013, concern has grown over his demanding workload and health condition, leading his aides and government officials to explore ways to reduce his burden.

As the fourth-oldest emperor since the 6th-7th centuries, when reliable records on Japanese emperors begin, Emperor Akihito confessed to the public in 2010 that he is experiencing problems with his hearing.

Despite his age, the emperor’s schedule was extremely tight in 2012. As well as attending various public events in many parts of Japan and signing more than 700 official documents, he traveled to London to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee and visited northwestern Japan cities hard hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

His aides and the general public are also concerned about the emperor’s health in view of his past medical history, including bronchial pneumonia he suffered in 2011 and heart bypass surgery he had in February 2012.

The emperor also has been continuing to receive hormone treatment to prevent a recurrence of prostate cancer following removal of a tumor in 2003.

As a way to ease the burden on his health, the aides have proposed the emperor leave some of his ceremonial duties to other imperial family members.

Prince Akishino, the younger son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, has called for studying a proposed age limit for imperial status.

In January 2009, the Imperial Household Agency implemented a set of measures aimed at lightening the burden on the emperor. Among them were skipping speeches at less important ceremonies and simplifying official duties at Imperial Palace rituals.

But the emperor said in December 2010 when he turned 77 that he would not make any further cuts in his official duties.

On his 79th birthday in December 2012, the emperor clarified his stance on his workload, saying, “I would like to maintain the status quo for the time being.”

According to an Imperial Household Agency official, the emperor strongly believes that he should engage in activities for the public as long as his health allows him to do so.

Emperor Akihito thinks when he becomes unable to perform his duties, a regent should replace him, according to one of the aides.

The Imperial Household Law says a regency shall be instituted when the emperor is unable to perform his duties due to serious mental or physical disease.

But the law does not have any provision regarding an emperor’s abdication from the throne while he is still alive.

When he stepped down from his post in June 2012, Imperial Household Agency Grand Steward Shingo Haketa said that under the current lifetime system, the emperor cannot reduce his public duties even when he is old.

Fairness is another issue standing in the way of reducing the emperor’s duties.

“As for reducing my responsibilities, careful consideration must be taken in the case of official duties as it will need to be based on the principle of fairness,” the emperor said at a press conference held to mark his 79th birthday in December 2012.

The emperor was apparently saying that he would not skip some events to reduce his workload while maintaining similar events held in other places.

But in light of the emperor’s age and health, maintaining the situation unchanged is not an option for his aides. “Doing nothing is not what we are going to do,” one of the aides said.

Measures being eyed by the agency at present are shortening the time of events the emperor is to attend and allotting more time to rest during weekdays.

Masayasu Hosaka, who has written a number of books on Japan’s emperors, said, “The emperor’s public duties should be closely reviewed and some of them should be gradually left to the crown prince and other imperial members.”

Hosaka said reviewing the emperor’s duties is a matter to be discussed by politicians.

Parliament has done little to take up the issue of the emperor’s duties in the past, he said, adding politicians are refraining from touching on the topic for fear of making it a political issue.

“But it is politicians’ obligation to discuss the matter because the emperor himself cannot propose anything about it,” he said.