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In his broadcast on Aug. 8, Emperor Akihito reflected on his age and growing infirmity. He wondered for how long he could continue to carry out his duties properly? He was careful to avoid any comment that could be seen as inappropriate to his non-political role as a symbol of the state.

Under present laws there is no provision for abdication and conservative elements in Japan are reluctant to accept any changes that might imply modernizing the system in line with some monarchies in Europe, which have seen abdications in recent years, e.g., Spain and the Netherlands. Any suggestion that Japan should follow the precedent set by Pope Benedict would, of course, be anathema to Shinto ritualists.

Japanese conservatives prefer to quote the British queen, who at 90 shows no sign of wanting to retire. But Queen Elizabeth II fortunately enjoys good health and genes.

For my part, I can well understand the Emperor’s concerns. I am some 10 years older than he is and want to continue writing and researching as long as I can, but I have none of the responsibilities that the Emperor has and have not had to undergo the surgical operation which he has had to face.

The Emperor has been a conscientious and humane holder of his office. Through his tours abroad he has shown his understanding of past wrongs and tragedies. By his visits within Japan and the human kindness that he and the Empress have shown to Japanese victims of the natural disasters to which Japan is prone, he has demonstrated that he is not a being above the clouds but a human and sympathetic figure.

The Emperor was born before the war and his earliest years were spent in the trauma of destruction and defeat. His father remains a controversial figure in Japanese history. Emperor Showa’s most important contribution to the history of Japan was his belated decision in August 1945 to overrule his advisers and insist on unconditional surrender even if that might lead to the end of Japan’s Imperial institution. This decision saved Japan from certain destruction and innumerable lives.

I first met the present Emperor in 1952 when I was a young and junior diplomat and he came to dinner at the residence of the British ambassador in Tokyo while he was preparing to represent his father at the coronation in London of Queen Elizabeth. The dinner must have been rather an ordeal for the young prince accompanied by a bevy of stuffy old chamberlains.

I heard much about his visit to Britain on this occasion although I did not accompany him. In 1976, however, when the Crown Prince and Princess accepted an invitation from the queen to visit Britain and he was a guest first of the queen and then of the British government I was serving as a senior official in the British Foreign Office and decided to assume responsibility for their program.

I hope and believe that they enjoyed their tour on this occasion. In addition to cultural and public facilities in England I accompanied them to Scotland where among other places they visited the marine laboratory at my old alma mater, St. Andrews University, the oldest university in Scotland. In South Wales I accompanied the Crown Prince when he went down the deepest coal mine in Britain, which closed many years ago. My wife accompanied the Crown Princess, who has a deep interest in poetry and English literature, to Tintern Abbey, which is celebrated in a famous poem by William Wordsworth. I wrote an account of both visits, which was published in Britain and Japan, in “Biographical Portraits, Volume V” (published in 2005 by Global Oriental).

They backed the decision that their son, the present Crown Prince, should study at Merton College Oxford. Fortunately they were able to pay at least one unofficial visit to England to see Prince Hiro, as he was then informally called. The Crown Prince’s memoir of his time at Oxford, which I translated in 2006 into English under the title “The Thames and I” revealed a sensitive, intelligent and considerate young man.

When the Emperor and Empress made theirs state visit to Britain in 1997 they received a warm welcome, although this was marred by some demonstrations of anti-Japanese feeling due to the ill-treatment of British prisoners of war. But I believe that this did not undermine their affection for Britain.

The Japanese title of “tenno” was unfortunately not adopted in the Meiji period in place of the term “mikado,” which had become inappropriate in view of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, which had become a worldwide hit. The term “emperor,” which derives from the Roman word “imperator,” meaning supreme general, was inappropriate for a head of state of a Pacific country, but it was chosen so that the Japanese monarch would be regarded as equal to the emperors of Russia, Germany and China and Queen Victoria of Britain, who had become empress of India. Now the Japanese emperor is the only monarch with this anachronistic title.

The priestly functions of the Japanese emperor, as sanctified by the enthronement ceremonies, have sometimes been compared with the role of the British queen as head of the Church of England, but an analysis of the roles shows that the analogy cannot be taken far. Japan is a now a secular state whose constitution upholds religious freedom. State Shinto was abolished and Emperor Showa made it clear that he did not regard himself as in any way divine. The stories about Japan’s divine origin are myths and no educated person can see them in any other light.

The Emperor has noted Japan’s connections with Korea. It is a pity that the ancient imperial tombs remain unexcavated and Japan’s historical past obscured by the prejudices of conservatives living in an imaginary past.

I hope the government will find ways of modernizing Japan’s succession law so that the Emperor, if he feels unable to continue, can abdicate in favor of the Crown Prince. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done much to promote the role of women in Japan. He would do Japan a great service and enhance its reputation in the world if he saw off Japan’s male chauvinist conservatives and forced through a change in the law of succession to allow for an empress to succeed, as recommended by a recent commission.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984 and was chairman of the Japan Society of London from 1985-1995.

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