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Defining Emperor as head of state a point of contention in Constitution debate

Emperor Akihito delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 2016 regular Diet session on Jan. 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

News reports that Emperor Akihito has expressed his intention to abdicate have called into question the relationship between the Emperor and the Constitution. This is because the Constitution provides for the status of the Emperor and discussions on the imperial household are closely related to the supreme law.

There is little objection to the argument that the Emperor is "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People," as stipulated in Article 1 of the Constitution. A report that the House of Representatives Commission on the Constitution published in April 2005 stated that a majority of panel members agreed that this take on the imperial family, which had taken root among the Japanese public, should be maintained.

However, there was debate within the commission on whether the Constitution should clearly define the Emperor as head of state. Heads of state represent their countries in the international community. The Constitution of the Empire of Japan, known as the Meiji Constitution, recognized the Emperor as head of state, and some insisted that the postwar Constitution be amended to similarly define the Emperor as such.

Those in favor of such a revision believe that the Constitution should clearly state that the Emperor represents Japan since he appoints the prime minister and hosts ambassadors of other countries.

However, those who are cautious about such an amendment argue that defining the Emperor as head of state would be problematic, since Article 4 stipulates that the Emperor "shall not have powers related to government."

Ultimately, those within the panel who said it was unnecessary to define the Emperor as head of state outnumbered those who called for such a definition.

A draft of a new Constitution that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party unveiled in April 2012 defines the Emperor as head of state.

Article 4 of the Constitution stipulates that the Emperor should "perform acts in matters of state as are provided for in this Constitution," such as appointments of the prime minister and the chief justice of the Supreme Court as well as convocation of the Diet. However, the supreme law has no provision for the Emperor's attendance at Diet session opening ceremonies, visits to other countries and attendance at national athletic meets. The opposition Japanese Communist Party had boycotted Diet session opening ceremonies on the grounds that the Emperor's speech in such ceremonies was unconstitutional until its legislators, for the first time, attended the opening ceremony for the 2016 regular Diet session in January.

Since the Emperor's visits to other countries have taken root, some have insisted that such trips be written into the Constitution. Some members of the lower house Commission on the Constitution made similar assertions, while others said it was undesirable to increase the Emperor's acts in matters of state, because doing so would place a heavy burden on the Emperor.

The Constitution states that "the Imperial Throne shall be dynastic and succeeded to in accordance with the Imperial House Law passed by the Diet." There was debate on issues related to the succession of the Imperial Throne in the commission, although it would not directly lead to constitutional amendment.

A majority of the commission members argued that female members of the Imperial Family should be allowed to accede to the Imperial Throne out of fear that the Imperial line could be severed, as the Imperial House Law stipulates that only male offspring on the male line can accede to the throne.

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