A government panel appears ready to propose that a special temporary law be enacted to allow Emperor Akihito, 83, to abdicate, given his advanced age.
But the Emperor reportedly believes a permanent reform law, not a temporary one just for himself, should be enacted so future monarchs can abdicate if they so chose.
Why is the panel set to propose something that would go against the Emperor’s wishes? What is the logic behind its thinking?
Here are some questions and answers on the long-running debate over the abdication issue:
Why did Emperor Akihito suggest the Imperial system be reformed to allow an emperor to abdicate?
On Aug. 8, in an unprecedented video message televised nationwide, the Emperor, then 82, expressed concern that he may some day become unable to fully perform his public duties due to his age.
Citing two surgeries, the Emperor said his physical strength had weakened recently.
The video was widely interpreted as indicating his desire to abdicate within a few years and to see reforms to the Imperial system made so an emperor can step down before death.
In response, the government set up a six-member panel headed by Takashi Imai, former head of Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), that is expected to present its reform proposals early next year.
What is the panel’s consensus to date?
On Dec. 14, Takashi Mikuriya, the panel’s deputy chairman, told reporters all six members were of the opinion that it is technically difficult to clarify in legal terms the conditions under which an elderly emperor should be allowed to abdicate.
Mikuriya also said public opinion regarding the conditions and age for abdication can change over time and depend on the prevailing social situation.
For example, the retirement age at most Japanese companies was once 50 but is now 60, in light of the growth in average longevity in Japan.
Another thorny issue, government officials say, is how select the person who will judge whether the mental and physical condition of an emperor meets the conditions for abdication.
A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, vaguely warned that “various problems” could arise if an emperor is allowed to abdicate based on his own desire.
Many right-leaning, conservative intellectuals and politicians argue that an emperor should not be allowed to abdicate on his own because it could destabilize the Imperial succession system.
For example, an emperor might use age or health problems as an excuse to quit for different reasons, including political ones related to his views or those of enemies or political forces arrayed against him, conservative critics say.
“If an emperor is allowed to abdicate on his own, it would allow a subsequent emperor to refuse to assume the throne or to abdicate after a short term,” Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor at Reitaku University, wrote in an opinion paper presented to the panel in November.
“It would greatly shake the stability of the Imperial Throne,” Yagi wrote, arguing that a regent should be installed in the event an emperor becomes unable to fulfill his public duties due to age.
How does Emperor Akihito feel about these issues?
The Emperor has not said in public whether he wants a temporary or permanent route to abdication.
But Mototsugu Akashi, 82, a longtime friend, quoted the Emperor as saying in private that he wants reform for “which abdication is possible not only for myself, but (for future emperors).”
The Emperor also reportedly said he doesn’t think installing a regent is a good idea.
When his father, Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa), served as regent when Emperor Taisho’s health began failing, the public was split by the issue.
“I think a regent is not a good idea,” the Emperor was quoted as telling Akashi.
If that account is true, why won’t the panel support the Emperor?
It won’t because the Constitution bans emperors from engaging in political activity, and altering the Imperial system is considered the task of the politicians, who are supposed to represent the people.
According to the Constitution, the emperor is “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People,” and “shall not have powers related to government.”
Thus if the emperor were to play a significant role in reforming the Imperial system, it would be considered a violation of the Constitution, scholars and civil servants say.
Government officials have repeatedly emphasized they will draw up an Imperial reform bill on their own, regardless of the “private” views of Emperor Akihito, and are expected to submit one, based on the panel’s recommendations, to the Diet in the first half of next year.
How does the public stand on the matter?
According to a opinion poll conducted from Dec. 9 to Dec. 12 by Jiji Press, 61 percent of the public backs a permanent law that would allow Emperor Akihito and all future emperors to abdicate, and 21.6 percent support the idea of a special law that would be apply only to him.
The poll covered 2,000 voters across the country and drew valid responses from 62.3 percent of those interviewed.
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