National / Politics

Navigating succession under Japan's Imperial system

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Emperor Akihito’s reported intention to abdicate in a few years because of his advanced age has shocked the nation, made headlines and triggered discussion among intellectuals on how the Imperial throne should be succeeded.

But since the first report surfaced earlier this month, Imperial family members, including the Emperor, have remained mum. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also declined comment, citing the “sensitive nature of the issue.”

So what, exactly, is politically sensitive? And what legal and constitutional issues are involved if an emperor abdicates?

Following are questions and answers about the Emperor and abdication.

Why is the reported plan to abdicate so controversial?

Neither the Constitution nor the Imperial House Law has any provision for an abdication. The Imperial House Law only says that when an emperor dies, a male in the male-succession line of the Imperial family will automatically succeed the throne.

This means an emperor is not allowed to abdicate and the throne can only be succeeded upon a monarch’s death.

If the Emperor is to be allowed to abdicate, the Imperial House Law would likely need to be revised.

Any political talk to revise the law would spark numerous debates about the Imperial system, said Koichi Yokota, professor emeritus of constitutional studies at Kyushu University.

“Right now the will of an emperor or a crown prince is not respected” as far as the succession system is concerned, Yokota said.

“If the will of an emperor is to be respected, under what conditions should an emperor be allowed to quit? What if an emperor refuses to serve because he doesn’t want to, or because he is simply exhausted? Who should rule in such a case?” Yokota asked.

Experts say it could take several years for the government to draw up any revision after first convening an advisory panel of intellectuals well versed on the Imperial system.

The Diet would then need to reach a consensus among lawmakers and enact legislation to revise the Imperial House Law.

What issues could emerge if the Diet is to revise the Imperial House Law?

During a Lower House session on April 17, 1984, Satoru Yamamoto, then a senior official at the Imperial Household Agency, cited three main reasons why the law bans an emperor from abdicating.

First, if an emperor abdicates, the country would have a retired emperor, splitting the authority of the Imperial system into two. Second, certain political forces may try to force an emperor to quit if an abdication system is created. Lastly, if an emperor is allowed to abdicate voluntarily, this could also destabilize the Imperial system, according to Yamamoto.

Before the late 19th century, there were no laws on Imperial succession and many emperors voluntarily abdicated or were forced to quit depending on the political situation.

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.

Such a power struggle between an emperor and a grand emperor may not be likely today, but nationalistic conservatives still believe Japan should only have one emperor as the symbol of the Imperial system, Yokota of Kyushu University said.

Why has the Emperor, and Imperial family, not yet clarified his intent?

The Emperor has remained silent probably because the Constitution bans him from engaging in political activities.

Under the postwar Constitution, the emperor is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” and is banned from expressing political opinions. In public, an emperor is only allowed to perform ceremonial duties.

Revising any law or the Constitution to change the Imperial system is considered a highly political issue. For example, right-wing nationalists have long argued the Constitution should be revised to make the emperor “the head of state,” while communists have called for the abolition of the Imperial system itself.

Mainstream politicians are somewhere in between, with their view of the Imperial system and degree of respect for it varying greatly from person to person, which in turn makes political talks on any revision difficult and sensitive.

According to media reports, the Imperial Household Agency is now preparing to give the Emperor an opportunity to explain his true intentions.

But given the constitutional restrictions, the Emperor is expected to only vaguely express his wish for revisions to the succession system, avoiding discussion on specific ideas or proposals.

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