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Emperor Akihito's possible abdication reflects his sense of responsibility

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wave from a car on their way home from the Hayama Imperial Villa in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, on July 14, 2016. (Mainichi)

Emperor Akihito's wish to abdicate as reported in recent news apparently reflects the strong sense of responsibility he has over his duties as the first emperor to succeed the title under Japan's current Constitution.

"I believe that his wish comes from a sense of responsibility as the Emperor. He must think that he should hand the title down to the next generation before he becomes unable to perform his duties," said a former Imperial Household Agency official and aide to the Emperor in response to the news.

In December 1990, Emperor Akihito told a news conference ahead of his 57th birthday, "I hope to perform the duties of the emperor suitable for modern times as a symbol of the unity of the Japanese people," a remark strongly suggesting his willingness to build a new image of an emperor. His frequent visits to Pacific War memorials and disaster-hit areas reflect such hope.

The Imperial Couple visited the Pacific nation of Palau, which was a fierce battle field in the war, in April 2015, the 70th anniversary of the war's end. Emperor Akihito was 81 years old at the time and had shown symptoms of a cold. A senior Imperial Household Agency official recalls, "He wasn't in his best condition. He looked exhausted after returning to Japan." The trip required constant care for his health.

Nevertheless, Emperor Akihito continued to actively participate in public duties. The Imperial Couple traveled to the Philippines in January this year to commemorate the war dead and visited evacuation shelters in Kumamoto Prefecture four months later following the deadly earthquakes in April.

In the meantime, reducing the Emperor's workload has become a pressing issue. Emperor Akihito had surgery for prostate cancer in January 2003 and heart bypass surgery in February 2012. In January 2009, his speech at a ceremony was canceled and in 2014 it was decided to increase the number of doctors to take care of his health. And then in May 2016, it was decided that some of his meetings with heads of administrative bodies would be cut.

However, the amount of his official duties was cut back only a little. The agency's Vice Grand Steward Shinichiro Yamamoto told a news conference on May 9, "There are public duties that can only be performed by His Majesty the Emperor. He hopes to continue (with his duties)," suggesting that Emperor Akihito does not wish to reduce his workload while on the throne.

In a June 2012 news conference before leaving the agency, then Grand Steward Shingo Haketa said, "In our country, emperors retain their title for life. I have always wondered how to dissolve the dilemma (of such a system). There may be a fundamental issue as to how the emperor's title should be passed down."

Mototsugu Akashi, 82, Emperor Akihito's classmate from elementary school through high school years, saw him at a school reunion in March.

"He may be feeling guilty about his physical strength preventing him (from doing his job) even though he has motivation," says Akashi, in response to reports about the Emperor's possible abdication. "It takes time to change rules. It seems typical of him to take consideration of others (involved in the matter) by expressing his wish while he is still in good condition."

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