National / Politics

If the pope can retire, why can't Japan's elderly Emperor?

by Linda Sieg

Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI did it. Dutch Queen Beatrix did it. So why is it so hard for Japan’s elderly Emperor to abdicate?

NHK reported last month that Emperor Akihito, 82, wanted to abdicate “in a few years,” something unprecedented in modern Japan.

Ordinary Japanese sympathize with his apparent desire to hand over the throne to Crown Prince Naruhito, but the idea faces stiff opposition from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative base.

Conservatives have already raised objections to changing the law to let the Emperor step down, citing problems ranging from his title and possible strife with a new emperor, to worry that the next step would be letting women succeed and pass on the throne, anathema to traditionalists.

Even more, conservatives fear that a debate over the Imperial family’s future would divert political energy from Abe’s push to revise the postwar, pacifist Constitution, which they see as a symbol of defeat but admirers view as the guarantor of Japan’s democracy.

Abe’s ruling bloc and allies last month won a two-thirds majority in the Upper House, which, with a similar grip on the lower chamber, clears the way for an attempt to change the charter. Revisions also require approval by a majority in a referendum.

“For the first time since the war’s end, there is a chance for the Japanese people to revise the Constitution that was forced upon them by Occupation forces,” said Akira Momochi, a conservative constitutional scholar at Nihon University.

“Frankly, I worry we will lose the ability to achieve this.”

Once considered divine, the Emperor is defined in the Constitution as a symbol of the “unity of the people” with no political power.

The Emperor ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne after the death in 1989 of his father, Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, in whose name Japan fought the war. He has sought to soothe the wounds of that conflict and tried to bring the monarchy closer to the public.

Unlike some European monarchies, Japan has no legal provision for abdication, though many emperors abdicated in the premodern era.

On Monday, a video of the Emperor might be aired to outline his concern that age and health problems — he has had heart surgery and prostate cancer — mean that he cannot do his job fully, but without using the word “abdicate,” media say.

There are no signs the Emperor was influenced by Benedict’s retirement as pontiff in 2013. But he may have been inspired by Queen Beatrix, who at age 75 announced her abdication on television that same year, the third Dutch queen to step down since the war.

“He wants to have a system where the Emperor can hand over to a younger generation that would be closer to the people and reflect the times,” one veteran journalist said.

Conservatives argue that an existing system allowing the Crown Prince to take over as regent, if the Emperor is incapacitated, can cover the situation, even though the Emperor is far from feeble.

They also worry debate could stir calls for allowing female succession, given the shortage of male heirs. Earlier plans to revise the succession law were shelved after the birth in 2006 of Prince Hisahito to the Crown Prince’s younger brother.

“I don’t think he can ignore the views of such conservatives,” Keio University professor Hidehiko Kasahara said of Abe.

Still, public opinion in favor of letting the Emperor abdicate could sway the debate if his appeal is emotionally moving, some experts said, noting that while many Japanese find the royals irrelevant, others are fond of the Emperor himself.

“Depending on how the TV appeal is done, it could stir up public opinion,” said Naotaka Kimizuka, an expert in European monarchies at Kanto Gakuin University. “Or, people could lose interest and things will go as Abe’s administration prefers.”

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