In his video message that was televised nationwide Aug. 8, Emperor Akihito posed a much more far-reaching question than had been anticipated, which was tantamount to a political statement requiring deep thinking for full comprehension.

The soft-sounding title “message” may have given the impression of what the Emperor said as the story of a highly respected, aging head of a long-established company timidly revealing his desire to retire. More than 80 percent of people in opinion surveys are said to have expressed sympathy for the Emperor. They probably thought that it was only natural for him to say what he said and wanted the government to take prompt action to respond to his wishes. That’s because they took the Emperor’s problem as an issue that could confront every family in this rapidly aging society — as if they had found a pitfall in the social security system.

But a question arises as to why the issue raised by the Emperor could be addressed only by allowing him to abdicate — and not by reducing his official duties or appointing a regent. By analyzing the way the Emperor touched on political processes regarding his status, it would be reasonable to assume that the most fundamental subject he had in mind was: “What does the government intend to do to sustain the present system of the emperor as the symbol of the state?”

That an emperor’s status as the symbol of the state is stipulated in Article 1 of the Constitution illustrates that it represents Japan’s postwar national identity.

When the Allied powers of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and Nationalist China issued the Proclamation Defining Terms of Japanese Surrender, better known as the Potsdam Declaration, toward the end of World War II in July 1945, die-hard leaders of the Imperial Japanese Army denounced it as something that would destroy the nation’s sovereignty and insisted on continuing the war. But the declaration was in fact accepted in a bargain according to its terms: that in exchange for Japan relinquishing its own armed forces, the U.S. as the leading occupation power would guarantee the security of the Imperial family and continuation of the monarchy system. Emperor Showa, the father of the current Emperor, told then War Minister Korechika Anami, who was not convinced by the declaration until the end, not to worry because he had every reason not to. The Emperor thus chose to surrender, Anami committed suicide, and the Japanese armed forces were disbanded.

The reason Article 1 clarifies the Imperial system — stipulating that each reigning emperor derives “his position from the will of the people with whom resides the sovereign power” — is because maintaining the system was the most important point of it. In return, Article 9 renounces war.

The symbolic status of emperors forms the basis for the three main pillars of the Constitution: popular sovereignty, pacifism and basic human rights. The Emperor in his message talked softly but resolutely about his thinking that his symbolic status represents peace and prosperity that has been obtained at the sacrifice of numerous lives, that this status must not be compromised or delegated to anybody else, and that this idea and method must be handed down to subsequent generations. The main theme of his message, therefore, was not about abdication but succession of the postwar regime — which is synonymous with the continued existence of the Imperial family. In other words, the core question the Emperor asked in the message was: In which direction does the government seek to lead the Imperial family and the nation?

Perhaps nobody has ever given deeper thought than Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to the constitutional provision that his position derives “from the will of the people.” Under this principle, the one person, unlike elected politicians, must represent the “general will” of the people, as stated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and constantly win their understanding and support.

“It is essential,” the Emperor said in his message, “to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts,” adding, “I have felt that my travels to various places throughout Japan, in particular, to remote places and islands, are important acts of the Emperor as the symbol of the State.” He has indeed paid visits to people with disabilities, the elderly, victims of natural disasters and patients of Hansen’s disease and Minamata disease. The unfamiliar expression of “acts of the Emperor as the symbol of the State,” perhaps his own creation, seems to represent concrete ways in which he seeks to perform his duties.

There is criticism that the Emperor has haphazardly expanded the scope of his public duties — many of which comes from right-wing commentators, who favor appointing a regent and want the Emperor to sit still. But he firmly rejected such arguments, with his message serving as an admonishment to those who think they “monopolize” the Emperor.

Among those whom the Emperor and the Empress see privately are intellectuals who are opposed to the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, including Yoichi Higuchi, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who once praised young people demonstrating in front of the Diet, and left-leaning philosopher Kojin Karatani. Although this may infuriate right-wingers, it is an indication that the Emperor positions himself within postwar liberalism. It was from this standpoint that the Emperor in his message called upon the government to take concrete steps to ensure continuation of the present system of Imperial symbolism.

It was in July that NHK aired its exclusive report that the Emperor was searching for ways to abdicate. It took less than a month thereafter to prepare and polish his message, videotape it and televise it nationwide. It is difficult to find a politician capable of completing such a process so expeditiously at a time when power is concentrated more than ever in the prime minister’s office.

This perhaps is an indication that liberal conservatism, seen as having long perished from the Japanese political arena, still remains influential. Or could this perhaps indicate that there is a cross-sector inner circle of liberals surrounding the Emperor and the Empress?

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. Other translated articles from Sentaku can be read at www.sentaku-en.com .

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