Emperor Akihito is to abdicate on April 30, 2019, in accordance with a government decision under a special law enacted last year. As preparations get underway for the first Imperial abdication both in Japan’s modern history and under the postwar Constitution, the event should provide a chance for people to think about the future roles of emperors under the Constitution, which says the emperor “shall be the symbol of the state and the unity of the people” who derives his position from “the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”

The government will soon kick off a preparatory organization to consider how rituals should be carried out for Emperor Akihito’s abdication — which is not provided for in the Imperial House Law — and the subsequent enthronement of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

On his 84th birthday last month, Emperor Akihito said of his abdication, “Over the remaining days, as I continue to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state, I would like to make preparations for passing the torch to the next era.” His remarks echoes his August 2016 video message, in which he said he “felt a deep sense of responsibility” to carry out his duties as the symbol of the state but expressed concern as to “how I should conduct myself” if it becomes difficult to carry out the duties as his age advances and his health declines. The message eventually led to the enactment of the special law, which paves the way for him to retire without instituting an Imperial abdication.

Following the video message, the Abe administration set up a government panel to discuss issues related to the abdication, including the statuses of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko after the abdication. But throughout the talks at the panel, which also invited experts on the Imperial system and related fields, not much discussion was held as to what roles an emperor as “the symbol of the state” should play in the future.

What Emperor Akihito has said and done may give some clues as to what he thinks of an emperor’s role. In the video message, he said, “I have considered that the first and foremost duty of the Emperor is to pray for peace and happiness of all the people. At the same time, I also believe that in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices and be close to them in their thoughts.” His activities have indicated that he stands by the weak and those facing difficulties in society, such as victims of natural disasters, people with disabilities and former patients of Hansen’s disease. The Imperial Couple have made numerous visits to meet and encourage these people. They also visited Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa, as well as sites of fierce World War II battles in the Asia-Pacific region such as Saipan, Peleliu in Palau and Manila, where they prayed for the souls of all who died in battle.

For Emperor Akihito, these public activities must have been important for his position as “the symbol of the state” — although they are not spelled out in the Constitution. Stipulating that an emperor “shall not have powers related to government,” the Constitution says that “the Emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of states as provided for” in its text with “the advice and approval of the Cabinet.” The 10 acts in matters of state spelled out in Article 7 include promulgation of laws, convocation of the Diet and receiving foreign ambassadors and ministers.

When Emperor Akihito indicated his wish to retire, citing difficulties in keeping up his public activities due to his advancing age and declining health, questions were raised as to whether the activities not spelled out in the Constitution are indeed an emperor’s official duties. There were opinions that the problems cited by Emperor Akihito should be addressed by reducing those activities to a minimum — an idea that the Emperor himself is said to have resisted. When the government panel heard the opinions of experts, divergent views were reportedly expressed as to what are an emperor’s roles — with some conservative experts noting that it would be sufficient for an emperor to just offer prayers at the Imperial Palace. While media polls suggest that a large majority of the public supported Emperor Akihito’s wish to retire, many experts opposed abdication based on their own views on what an emperor should be.

Although the question had rarely come to the surface previously, the issue of Imperial abdication appears to have exposed people’s diverse views on what an emperor should be and what roles he should play. Public perception of the emperor’s roles may also change with a changing of the times. With 16 months before the abdication, we have an excellent opportunity to hold informed public discussion on the issue.

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