Mototsugu Akashi, an 83-year-old retiree in Tokyo, received a call at around 10 p.m. on July 21 at home from the most unexpected, unlikely caller: Emperor Akihito.
Akashi was surprised even though he has been a friend of the Emperor’s since childhood. Akashi couldn’t remember ever receiving a call from the Emperor, who was 82 at the time, after he ascended the Imperial throne in 1989.
During their 10-minute conversation, the Emperor explained his view on one of the hottest political topics right now in Japan: his wish to abdicate soon due to his advanced age, and how the Imperial system should be reformed for him and his successors.
“His majesty told me he has been thinking about abdicating for a long time, though it has become news now,” Akashi told The Japan Times in a recent interview in Tokyo.
Akashi said he decided to publicize his private conservation with the Emperor because he believes the government’s planned Imperial system reforms run directly counter to the Emperor’s apparent wish.
“He said he believes that (reforms) should be carried out on a permanent basis so that emperors of later generations, too, can abdicate” if necessary, Akashi said.
“He also said he is opposed to the idea of installing a regent.”
The government appears to favor enacting a temporary law that would only allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate, leaving no such provision for his successors. The plan is viewed as a compromise to avoid upsetting the nationalistic conservatives who are the core supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Under the Imperial House Law, an emperor’s reign ends upon death. Conservatives are opposed to abdication because they think it might destabilize the Imperial succession system.
Such people “ignore” the intentions of Emperor Akihito and “hurt the dignity” of the Imperial house, Akashi said.
“They don’t understand what he has done for the past 30 years. I can’t stand it,” Akashi said.
On July 13, NHK stunned the nation by reporting that Emperor Akihito was seeking to abdicate in a few years because he fears his advanced age will soon make him unable to fully perform his public duties.
The report, which was based on anonymous sources, sparked a public debate on whether an emperor should be allowed to abdicate and whether and whether the Imperial system should be reformed for future emperors.
“An abdication based on the free will of an emperor would allow a (crown prince) to refuse to ascend the throne. It would destabilize the Imperial throne,” Hidetsugu Yagi, professor of law at Reitaku University, argued at a meeting of the government’s abdication advisory panel on Nov. 30.
Sukehiro Hirakawa, professor emeritus of literature at the University of Tokyo, meanwhile argued that the main job of an emperor is to “pray” for the nation, not to do something specifically for the public. Thus an emperor should simply be allowed to perform fewer public duties when age or other factors hamper him, he said.
The Constitution only obliges an emperor to perform certain ceremonial duties as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People.” But Emperor Akihito has kept himself busy by increasing his public duties, such as attending numerous ceremonies with foreign guests and visiting disaster-struck areas to encourage the victims.
He apparently believes an emperor should simply leave his position when he becomes too old and unable to fully perform his public duties.
“His majesty is a very serious person. He doesn’t get lazy about anything,” said Akashi, who went to the same kindergarten, elementary, junior high and high schools as the Emperor.
“If he believes the symbolic emperor should do a certain thing, he would do it thoroughly until he gets exhausted,” said Akashi, who was also one of the Emperor’s horse-riding companions.
After NHK broke the news, Akashi said in a TV interview that the Emperor might want to abdicate because Empress Michiko is in poor health. But the Emperor called him to deny the speculation and asked him not to discuss it in public because it could cause misunderstandings about the health of the Empress, Akashi said.
“He speaks just as ordinary people speak. Nowadays he talks more gently than before, though,” he added.
In the telephone conversation, Emperor Akihito reportedly explained his thoughts about the abdication issue. In the eras before the Meiji Era (1868-1912), many emperors abdicated and it would not be unusual if he did likewise, the Emperor was quoted as saying.
The Emperor also said he is opposed to the installation of regents because when Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, served as regent for his father, Emperor Taisho, the public split into two groups — one supporting the reigning monarch and the other the regent, Akashi said.
Akashi then contacted Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso because Aso was arguing that a regent should be installed if an emperor ever becomes too old to perform his duties.
Aso declined to meet with Akashi but instead introduced Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita to him.
Sugita, who is in charge of the abdication issue, met Akashi at the Prime Minister’s Office on Aug. 6. Akashi said he explained what the Emperor discussed and asked the government to quickly carry out Imperial reforms in line with the Emperor’s wishes.
But Sugita reportedly only said it would be “difficult to form a consensus” in the Diet to enact a permanent law to change the Imperial succession system. All the government and the Diet can do is make a special temporary law that would allow only Emperor Akihito to step down, Sugita reportedly told Akashi.
If Sugita’s remarks are true, it means the government already knew how it was going to handle the abdication issue far before it launched the advisory panel on Oct. 17.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has repeatedly emphasized the government has yet to make any decision and is waiting for the recommendations of the six-member panel, which is due to publicize an interim report on Monday.
Government officials have repeatedly emphasized they plan to draw up an Imperial reform bill on their own, regardless of the “private” views of the Emperor, because the Constitution bans emperors from engaging in political activities.
Altering the Imperial system is considered the task of politicians, who are supposed to represent the people, and any involvement by an emperor in that process could violate the Constitution, scholars and government officials say.
Emperor Akihito himself has been very careful to mind this and rarely espouses his views on politically sensitive issues.
But according to Akashi, the Emperor once gave a glimpse of what might be clues to his views on nationalism based on the sense of prewar values.
Akashi said that in around 1965, he had a private conversation with the Emperor when he was still the Crown Prince, and was told the monarch would never invite writer Yukio Mishima to be a lecturer on his behalf.
“Usually I listen to the lectures of various people, but I won’t listen to a lecture by Mr. Yukio Mishima,” Akashi, in a book he published in 2013, quoted him as saying.
Mishima, a world-renowned novelist, was also a staunch nationalist.
“I think Mr. Mishima believes in hakko-ichiu and thinks everyone in Japan should be conscripted as soldiers. He probably believes an emperor should not pursue the private happiness of his family,” he was quoted as saying in the book.
Hakko-ichiu (bringing the world under one house) is a propaganda phrase used by the wartime government to justify Japan’s aggression in Asia.