As Japan and its neighbors anxiously await a statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marking the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end, an unexpected figure may play a key role as a counterbalance to any speech that waters down past declarations of contrition: Emperor Akihito.

The Emperor, whose role is narrowly defined by the nation’s war-renouncing Constitution, is prohibited from entering the political fray. He is “the symbol of the state,” the charter proclaims, “and of the unity of the people.”

But as the country faces down the challenges of the 21st century, including the aftermath of the March 2011 disasters and ensuing Fukushima nuclear crisis, the rise of China and an increasingly fraught U.S. alliance, the Emperor has weighed in, however tacitly, on the future of Japan.

In his annual New Year’s address in January, the Emperor offered up what some observers have said amounted to a subtle rebuke of the revisionist view that Japan had fought World War II as a defensive conflict to liberate the Asian people.

“I think it is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of the war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of the country,” the official English translation of that address said.

And in June, during a visit by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, the Emperor voiced Japan’s “remorse” for its actions during the war, an official translation by the Imperial Household Agency showed.

From the Imperial Couple’s numerous visits to the disaster-hit Tohoku region to this year’s trips to Pacific island nations that suffered under Japanese wartime military aggression, the Emperor has played a crucial role in the country’s reconciliation diplomacy.

“The role of the Emperor as defined by the Constitution is the head of state . . . not a political governance role, but we’ve seen the Emperor play a kind of . . . unifying role after the disasters in Tohoku in 2011,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was the Emperor going on television, asking the Japanese people to pull together. (His role) is kind of a slightly spiritual role, but it’s also a unifying role, more so than the prime minister.

“So there is this very contemporary function of the Imperial household that still speaks to the Japanese people — in a different way than their politically elected leaders do,” she said.

And according to a report last month on the website Gendai Business by freelance journalist Takao Toshikawa, the Emperor may attempt to speak to the Japanese people in precisely this manner.

Toshikawa wrote that as Abe appears less and less likely to employ the words “apology” and possibly even “colonial rule” in his anniversary statement, the Emperor may take it upon himself to offer an apology to China and South Korea in his own annual speech marking the war’s end on Aug. 15.

Some scholars and experts have echoed this prediction.

“There is some chance that Emperor Akihito could say something that would be widely interpreted as a thinly veiled rebuke of Abe’s historical revisionism and/or the security bills,” said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.

While the conservative Imperial Household Agency would likely try to block the Emperor from saying something that could land him in political hot water, he does have options, Nakano added.

“What the Emperor may conceivably do, while also dodging the potential criticism that he is interfering in politics, is to repeat the essence of the Murayama statement more fully than Abe would, or to emphasize his commitment to the peace Constitution — in other words by assuming the ‘official’ government positions that Abe has been seeking to undermine while superficially claiming to uphold them,” Nakano said, noting that Article 99 of the Constitution stipulates that the Emperor, ministers, Diet members and public servants in general have a duty to observe the charter.

Such a criticism, said Nakano, would deal a serious blow to the legitimacy and credibility of the government in a way that would be utterly different from the criticisms by the opposition and liberal camps.

“If delivered skillfully, the Emperor’s covert rebuke might possibly encourage the more moderate elements in the conservative political establishment to speak out against Abe,” he said.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Smith, however, views such a scenario as unlikely.

“I would not expect to see the Emperor taking a direct role, either in opposition to or in agreement with a Japanese prime minister,” Smith said. “That’s not the way they’ve ever participated in the past.

“I wouldn’t see this as something that is going to try and contend with Abe or try to override an Abe statement.”

Still, while not necessarily an overt statement, Smith said, the Aug. 15 speech will likely echo the Emperor’s New Year’s address and what’s been said subsequently by both him and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, who in a February birthday address called for a “correct” account of history. This was widely seen as a jab at historical revisionists.

“It will be there, but I’m not sure it will be something that will be driven by whatever Mr. Abe says,” Smith noted. “I think a lot of people would like the Emperor to speak out more forcefully, but I suspect that what we’re seeing already in terms of the New Year’s statement and subsequent statements, is very much in keeping with the role that the Emperors have played in reconciliation with Asia.

Whatever the contents of the statement may be, Abe’s sagging approval rating and widespread anger over the railroading of a set of contentious security bills through the Lower House have made for a public that appears hungry for their voices to be heard.

“The expectation is largely that there is some kind of counterbalance for those that are worried that the prime minister is taking their country in a direction that the majority of Japanese people don’t want to go,” Smith said. “I don’t know that the Imperial Family sees their role that way . . . but I certainly don’t think they’re going to hesitate to make their sentiments known on Aug. 15.”

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