A day after Japan was shocked by reports that Emperor Akihito is planning to abdicate, high-ranking officials remained silent Thursday, despite the potentially huge ramifications of such a move and intense interest both at home and abroad.
“I would refrain from comment given the nature of the issue,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday at Tokyo’s Haneda airport before leaving for Mongolia to attend the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting from Friday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government has no plans to contact the Emperor regarding his reported intention to abdicate “within a few years.”
Lawmakers are apparently trying to avoid discussing the politically sensitive issue of Imperial succession, a Pandora’s box that could spark various political debates on the status of an emperor, with the potential to make the formation of a national consensus difficult and lengthy, experts said.
“If you start discussing issues involving abdication, it raises a number of complications,” said Koichi Yokota, professor emeritus of constitutional studies at Kyushu University.
“Under what conditions should an emperor be allowed to quit? That’s a very difficult question.”
Quoting unnamed sources at the Imperial Household Agency on Wednesday, domestic media outlets reported that the Emperor, now 82, has expressed his wish to abdicate while he is alive.
Under the current Constitution and the Imperial House Law, the system of Imperial succession gives no consideration to the will of an emperor.
This means an emperor is obliged to serve in the position until his death, after which the crown prince is bound to automatically succeed him.
The concept of voluntary abdication for an emperor or a crown prince is not provided for under the existing system.
The Emperor’s age has become increasingly apparent in recent years, and he often walks with the assistance of Empress Michiko in public.
The Emperor underwent surgery to treat prostate cancer in 2003, and a heart bypass operation in 2012.
“I think a retirement age system will be necessary,” Prince Akishino said during a news conference in December 2011.
“After a human reaches a certain age, it gradually becomes more difficult to do various things,” he said.
The line of succession runs from the Emperor to Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, then to his brother, Prince Akishino, 50, and finally to Prince Akishino’s son, Prince Hisahito, 9.
If an emperor is allowed to abdicate voluntarily, it would raise many difficult questions about the status of the institution, Yokota said.
“What if an emperor refuses to serve because he doesn’t want to work anymore, or because he is simply exhausted? Who should give a ruling in such a case?” Yokota asked.
“If you start discussing the creation of a system of abdication, it would eventually lead to debates on what kind of emperor is desirable for us.”
During an Upper House session in 1984, Satoru Yamamoto, then a senior official at the Imperial Household Agency, told lawmakers that the current Imperial House Law does not allow an emperor to abdicate because it is designed “to stabilize the status of the emperor.”
“That’s the reason why the law doesn’t allow an emperor to abdicate,” Yamamoto said.
Before late 19th century, there were no written rules on Imperial succession and many emperors voluntarily abdicated or were forced to quit depending onthe political situation at the time. A retired emperor often took the title Joko, which means “grand emperor.”
As a result, the nation’s history contains many stories of power struggles that broke out between political forces supporting a sitting emperor and other camps seeking to capitalize on the authority of a grand emperor. To prevent such scrambles for power, the Meiji government drew up the old Imperial House Law, enacted in 1889, which obliged an emperor to stay in his position until death, Yokota pointed out.
The current Imperial House Law was revised, based on the old one, and took effect in 1947. It, too, contains no articles pertaining to abdication.
“If an abdication system is to be created, the conditions under which an emperor can abdicate should be made clear in written rules, and any arbitrary use of them should be made difficult,” said Takahisa Furukawa, a professor of history at Nihon University who is familiar with the modern Imperial system.
Under the current Constitution, the emperor is “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people” and as such is strictly prohibited from engaging in any political activities.
Still, if an emperor is disliked, for example, by certain political forces, they may put pressure on him to voluntarily abdicate. For this reason, any abdication system that is devised should be transparent and robust enough to withstand such outside pressures, Furukawa said.
He added that any status similar to that of Joko should not be created, given potential political problems.