A government panel of knowledgeable persons discussing Imperial abdication has wrapped up its hearings with experts on constitutional issues and the Imperial system, who gave diverse views on the matter from various perspectives — including the very role of emperors under the postwar Constitution and whether an emperor should be allowed to abdicate and how — questions that had rarely been publicly debated until Emperor Akihito, in a televised video message in August, expressed his wish to retire.

Despite the diverse opinions shared with the panel, the Abe administration is believed to have a scenario already in place: The panel will present a proposal to the government next spring based on which the administration will get a special law applicable solely to the current Emperor — instead of an amendment to the Imperial House Law, which sets the Imperial succession rules and does not provide for an emperor stepping down — enacted during the regular Diet session next year, with the abdication of the Emperor in 2018 in mind. The government reportedly wants to avoid amending the Imperial House Law given Emperor Akihito’s advanced age, since revising the law could open up all sorts of difficult issues, including the future of the Imperial family without changing the current rules that limit the succession to males and paternal lineage — a question that conservatives apparently wish to be left untouched.

The public, however, appears to favor institutionalizing Imperial abdication. Media opinion polls since Emperor Akihito’s message have shown an overwhelming majority of respondents expressing support for allowing him to abdicate. In a recent Kyodo News survey, 70 percent of the pollees said that all subsequent emperors should be allowed to abdicate, compared with 26 percent who replied that the rule should be changed solely for Emperor Akihito. Among the experts who spoke at the government panel, only five of the nine who either supported or condoned an Imperial abdication endorsed the idea of a special law for the current Emperor alone.

In Article 1, 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.” If so, the people should be sounded out on the question of abdication — an issue that relates to the role that emperors serve under the Constitution. The government needs to seek ways to build a broad consensus by getting popular opinion reflected as much as possible in its decision. Whatever decision it ends up making, it should be made with the recognition that abdication is not an issue only for Emperor Akihito but concerns future generations of the Imperial family.

The government is said to have excluded experts on the Imperial system and constitutional issues from members of the panel to prevent the discussions from becoming polarized and getting nowhere, instead inviting such experts to a series of hearings to give their opinions. True enough, the 16 experts called in to speak were split — nine supporting or condoning Imperial abdication against seven opposed to or cautious about allowing an emperor to step down — citing a variety of reasons.

Some of the experts who are opposed to abdication cited problems seen in the nation’s premodern history when it was common for an emperor to abdicate, including the dual power structure of a reigning emperor effectively controlled by a retired emperor and some emperors being forced to retire amid political power struggles, and said the presence of a retired emperor would undermine the function of the emperor as the symbol of the “unity of the people.” They said the problems confronting Emperor Akihito should be addressed by installing a regent who would take over the state duties of an aging emperor and significantly reduce his other public duties — an option that the Emperor himself appeared to reject in his August message.

Interestingly, many of the opponents of abdication appeared to restrict the public roles of emperors to symbolic ones — such as their sheer presence serving as key to the people’s unity. Under the Constitution, emperors “shall perform only such acts in matters of state as provided for” in its text and “shall not have powers related to government.” Aside from the appointment of the prime minister as designated by the Diet and the Supreme Court chief justice as designated by the Cabinet, the “matters of state” that emperors are to perform “with the advice and approval of the Cabinet” and “on behalf of the people” range from promulgation of laws and treaties to convening the Diet, dissolving the Lower House, attestation of the appointment and dismissal of ministers of state, awarding of honors, receiving foreign ambassadors and ministers, and performing ceremonial functions. And aside from these state matters, Emperor Akihito has been particularly active engaging in “public duties” such as visiting people hit by major disasters and praying for victims of war. While he was 82 years old, the Emperor made 128 trips performing such functions.

In his video message, Emperor Akihito said such activities outside of state matters are “important acts of the emperor as the symbol of the state,” noting that it is essential for the emperor “to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts,” and indicated that he wishes to abdicate because it will become difficult to perform such activities as his age advances. Though opinions may vary about the role of emperors under the Constitution, opinion polls that support his wish to abdicate seem to suggest that Emperor Akihito’s take on his role as the symbol of the state is being endorsed by a large part of the public.

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