At noon on Aug. 15, 1945, the people of Japan gathered solemnly around their radios. It was the first time that the nation had heard the Emperor’s voice. Japan had surrendered to the Allies.
The 玉音放送 (Gyokuon Hōsō, Jewel Voice Broadcast) given by 裕仁天皇 (Hirohito Tennō, Emperor Hirohito) — posthumously known as 昭和天皇 (Shōwa Tennō, Emperor Showa) — was delivered in formal fashion, and in an old form of Japanese that many today would find difficult to understand. There was also no direct reference to an actual 降伏 (kōfuku, surrender); instead, the Emperor said that Japan had been instructed to fully accept the terms of the ポツダム宣言 (Potsudamu Sengen, Potsdam Declaration). This led to widespread confusion among the attentive masses — the poor audio quality of the broadcast didn’t help much, either.
Fast-forward to Aug. 8, 2016, and Hirohito’s 息子 (musuko, son) and 後継者 (kōkeisha, successor) was in front on the camera giving a speech of his own, to a slightly confused nation. The widespread expectation before the broadcast was that 明仁天皇 (Akihito Tennō, Emperor Akihito), 82, would express his wish to 退位 (tai‘i, abdicate), citing age and health concerns.
“本日は、社会の高齢化が進む中 (Honjitsu wa, shakai no kōreika ga susumu naka, ‘Today, as we are in the midst of a rapidly aging society’),” the 82-year-old Emperor said, he wanted to tell the people what, “個人として (kojin to shite, as an individual),” he had been thinking about.
Although his use of the Japanese language was much more palatable by modern standards than that of his 前任者 (zenninsha, predecessor), his vague wording initially led some to wonder if he had in fact abdicated, or whether he was simply laying down the foundation for such a move in the future.
However, stepping down now would be effectively impossible, as there is nothing in the law allowing such a move, and any revision to the Imperial system is extremely politically sensitive. Chapter 1 of the 日本国憲法 (Nihonkoku Kenpō, The Constitution of Japan) strictly prohibits an emperor from engaging in any political activities, and this is most likely why the Emperor avoided discussing any specific ways to revise the succession system, which is based on the 皇室典範 (Kōshitsu Tenpan, Imperial Household Law).
“これまでのように，全身全霊をもって象徴の務めを果たしていくことが，難しくなるのでは ないかと案じています (Koremade no yō ni, zenshinzenrei o motte shōchō no tsutome o hatashite iku koto ga, muzukashiku naru no de wa nai ka to anjiteimasu, ‘I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now’),” the Emperor said. Indeed, it is undeniable that the Emperor’s 健康 (kenkō, health) is in decline — he underwent 手術 (shujutsu, an operation) for prostate cancer in 2003 and a heart bypass in 2012.
The Emperor said he had started to think about “国にとり，国民にとり，また，私のあとを歩む皇族にとり良いこと (kuni ni tori, kokumin ni tori, mata, watashi no ato o ayumu kōzoku ni tori yoi koto, ‘what would be best for the country, for the people, and also for the Imperial family members who will follow after me’).”
With baited breath, the nation listened on: “天皇が未成年であったり，重病などによりその機能を果たし得なくなった場合には，天皇の行為を代行する摂政を置くことも考えられます (Tennō ga miseinen de attari, jūbyō nado ni yori sono kinō o hatashienakunatta baai ni wa, tennō no kōi o daikō suru sesshō o oku koto mo kangaeraremasu, ‘A Regency may be established to act in the place of the Emperor when the Emperor cannot fulfill his duties for reasons such as he is not yet of age or he is seriously ill,’ ” the Emperor said.
He went on: “The practice in the Imperial family has been that the death of the Emperor called for events of heavy mourning, continuing every day for two months, followed by funeral events (喪儀, sōgi) that continue for a period of one year. These various events occur simultaneously with events related to the new era (新時代, shin jidai).” This, the Emperor said, “行事に関わる人々，とりわけ残される家族は，非常に厳しい状況下に置かれざるを得ません (gyōji ni kakawaru hitobito, toriwake nokosareru kazoku wa, hijō ni kibishii jōkyōka ni okarezaru o emasen, ‘places a very heavy strain on those involved in the events, in particular, the family left behind’). In an appropriately indirect way, the Emperor then made his feelings clear: “It occurs to me from time to time to wonder whether it is possible to prevent such a situation.”
Although the Emperor didn’t explicitly say he wished to abdicate during the 11-minute speech, it was implicit that he was considering a change in his Imperial status in the foreseeable future. He ended this speech with: “始めにも述べましたように, 憲法の下，天皇は国政に関する権能を有しません (Hajime ni mo nobemashita yō ni, Kenpō no moto, Tennō wa kokusei ni kan suru kennō o yūshimasen, ‘As I said in the beginning, under the Constitution, the Emperor does not have powers related to government’).”
He added: “Even under such circumstances, it is my hope that by thoroughly reflecting on our country’s long history of emperors, the Imperial family can continue to be with the people at all times and can work together with the people to build the future of our country,” and that “象徴天皇の務めが常に途切れることなく，安定的に続いていく (shōchō Tennō no tsutome ga tsune ni togireru koto naku, anteiteki ni tsuzuiteiku, ‘the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the state can continue steadily without a break’).”
Just as with his father’s surrender speech, the Emperor’s address was a momentous occasion, and had the attention of the entire country — indeed, much of the world. At the same time, Emperor Akihito’s choice of words and presentation also speak volumes about how the relationship between the Imperial family and the people of Japan has evolved since 1945.