It has been more than a month since NHK reported that Emperor Akihito had expressed a desire to step down from the Imperial throne before he died, and during that time the Emperor himself has addressed the matter in a prerecorded message to the nation. There has also been a great deal of discussion about the constitutionality of “abdication,” how the government will respond and whether or not the Emperor has any human rights.

Something that hasn’t been discussed much is the original report. NHK first aired the story on its 7 p.m. news show on July 13. Every other media outlet was caught completely off guard and scrambled to confirm it. According to an article in the Aug. 5 issue of Shukan Post, the press club of the Imperial Household Agency “was in total chaos,” with reporters running around, cellphones glued to their ears.

The NHK bulletin, delivered in the passive voice, stated that the Emperor had “indicated his will” to step down “in a few years” so that Crown Prince Naruhito could ascend the throne “before (the present Emperor) dies,” and that this desire had been accepted by the rest of the Imperial family. “Did anyone know where NHK got its information?” the reporters kept asking one another.

The Asahi Shimbun was the first to file the agency’s official disavowal of the story, several hours after NHK reported it. In the meantime, NHK ran it unchanged on its 9 p.m. news show and again at 11. Now reporters were running around with a different question: Would the Imperial Household Agency lodge an official protest with NHK and post it on its home page, as it did in 2013 after the Shukan Shincho magazine published a similar story about abdication? No protest was made, which means the NHK story was probably true. The Emperor’s subsequent prerecorded video effectively corroborated it after the fact.

But who contacted NHK? Shukan Post talked to a “major newspaper source” who says he learned that only a handful of people at the public broadcaster were privy to the leak, including the reporter in charge of Imperial affairs, and that NHK’s political desk was informed just before the news was aired. The source believes it came from “a high-ranking official in the agency,” due to the fact that NHK is not the type of news outlet that would make such a report behind the agency’s back.

So the real mystery is why the report was made in such a roundabout way. Yuichi Nishimura, a young constitutional scholar at Hokkaido University, told the Asahi that whoever leaked the news wanted to appear to be bypassing the Cabinet, which has authority over the Imperial Household Agency. At the time it seemed as if the government was just as surprised as the media was when the report aired. The government, which currently represents the desires of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party, is working to revise the Constitution, and one of the things they want to change is the status of the Emperor from a “symbol” (shōchō) of the state to its “sovereign head” (genshu), which is what he was before Japan lost World War II.

Toshiya Sakiyama, a reporter who covers the Imperial household, speculated on TBS radio that the Cabinet probably knew about the Emperor’s “intentions” before the leak and did nothing to stop it, but he “can’t confirm” that supposition. In any case, if the Cabinet didn’t know about it, then it was remiss in its responsibilities, because while the Emperor’s duties are stipulated in the Constitution, those he actually performs are carried out at “the discretion of the Cabinet.”

The distinction is important because the Emperor has taken his role as a symbol to heart. This is a point that has been made by overseas experts but not so much by the Japanese media. Emperor Hirohito never quite grasped what being a symbol entailed, but his son developed his own interpretation of what it means and endeavored to make the most of that role, which has involved tasks not mentioned in the Constitution. Emperor Akihito invented his job. His visit last week to Nippon Budokan Hall to express remorse for World War II is not something he’s required to do, and thus he can only do it with the permission of the Cabinet.

The same goes for all those trips he and Empress Michiko have made to former battle sites to pray for those who perished in the war, not to mention visiting disaster areas to commiserate with evacuees. These “duties” (kōmu) are, legally speaking, not duties at all. Real kōmu are restricted to religious rituals, rubber-stamping documents and meeting foreign dignitaries. These newer tasks are simply things the Emperor wants to do, and now that he’s established a precedent in the minds of the people, he insists that his heirs continue this work, which is why he wants to step down. In order for that work to proceed smoothly, it shouldn’t be slowed down or interrupted by his own failing health and inevitable death. The Crown Prince should take over. It’s not a question of succession; it’s about productivity.

The problem for the government goes beyond changing the law to allow for abdication. As Nishimura points out, this “role” the Emperor has assumed negates that of “sovereign head of state.” Though the nuance may be lost on the general population, the majority appreciates the Emperor’s interpretation of his status, which might make it difficult to change that part of the Constitution.

This possibility explains the leak to NHK. Sakiyama says he received information that the announcement of the Emperor’s intention to step down was originally going to be made on the Emperor’s birthday in December, and while no one in the media has said so explicitly, the feeling is that it was moved up because of the LDP’s victory in the Upper House election in July. Before the government starts fiddling with the national charter, the Emperor wants the people involved and thus has injected his “will” into the matter. Such a scheme is clearly political and outside the Emperor’s job description, but when you create an occupation for yourself, you get to say how it’s carried out.

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