Emperor Akihito, in a rare televised video message to the public on Monday, indicated his desire to abdicate — which is not possible under the current Imperial House Law — citing a growing concern that he could become unable to perform official duties due to his advanced age and declining health. Accommodating the Emperor’s wish would require revising the 1947 law, which stipulates that the emperor’s position will be taken over upon his death in accordance with the dynastic line of succession as determined by the law, and the government is reportedly ready to discuss an amendment. But in doing so, the implications of an Imperial abdication to the emperor’s position as a “symbol of the state” under the Constitution should be carefully considered. The issue should also give the public an opportunity to think again about the role of the Imperial system under the constitutional democracy.

The concern expressed by the 82-year-old Emperor, who had a heart bypass surgery in 2012 and has received hormone treatment to prevent a recurrence of prostate cancer following the removal of a tumor in 2003, are entirely understandable, even though he is not believed to have any pressing health problems requiring an immediate abdication. The Emperor, who is said to be of the opinion that his position under the Constitution and the official duties associated with it are inseparable, said the surgeries and the toll that age is taking on his health led him to think “what would be best for the country, for the people, and also for the Imperial Family members who will follow after me.” That his wish to abdicate — since it was widely reported in the media last month — has been generally viewed favorably in media surveys may reflect this, including a Kyodo News poll last week that showed 85 percent of respondents saying an abdication should be made possible.

Such a favorable public response — based on which the government will likely explore its action — may overlook some of the contradictions between the very act of the Emperor’s wish publicly disclosed, first through media reports quoting anonymous sources and then in the Emperor’s own words, and his position under the postwar Constitution.

Article 1 of the Constitution says the emperor “shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” The advice and approval of the Cabinet will be required “for all acts of the Emperor in matters of state” and the emperor “shall perform only such acts in matters of state as provided for in this Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government” under Article 3 and 4.

Well aware of such provisions, the Emperor in the video message carefully chose his words to tell what he has been thinking “as an individual” while refraining from making specific comments on the current Imperial household system due to his “position as emperor.” But if his words, even though he avoided directly mentioning his wish to abdicate, results in triggering or influencing government action to change the Imperial household system to accommodate his wish, that might be construed as the Emperor overstepping his power under the Constitution.

About half of the emperors in Japan’s history are believed to have retired and handed over their position to a younger successor — for a variety of reasons. But an Imperial abdication has not taken place since Emperor Kokaku in 1817. One of the reasons that Imperial abdication was explicitly banned under the Meiji government is said to have been to avoid the risk of a dual power structure in which a retired emperor continued to effectively control his successor to wield political power — as happened frequently in medieval times.

Such a risk seems unwarranted now that under the postwar Constitution the emperor does not hold any political power. Still, experts point to the risk of a confusion from the simultaneous existence of an emperor and a retired emperor because of the authority associated with the emperor’s position even without the political power.

In the postwar years, the government has explained that the Imperial Household Law prohibits an Imperial abdication from the viewpoint of stability of the emperor’s position. Officials said the danger of an emperor being effectively forced to retire against his will — under the false pretense of a voluntary abdication — cannot be ruled out. When an argument was made earlier that the emperor’s freedom to abdicate should be approved in view of the basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution, the government said the emperor abdicating on his own free will contradicts with his position as a “symbol of state” that derives from “the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”

It’s likely Emperor Akihito’s words will prompt the government to take action. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that he “takes it seriously that the Emperor issued a message to the people” and that he needs to “think hard what can be done” in view of the Emperor’s age and the burden of his public duties. Some of the problems associated with an Imperial abdication such as setting rules and procedures should be resolved by revising the Imperial House Law. Others — including how the practice, which would have to involve the emperor expressing his own wish, would conform with his position as the “symbol of state” based on the people’s will — should be thoroughly discussed to build a public consensus.

Coronavirus banner