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Emperor's desire to abdicate puts spotlight on Imperial Family restrictions

With Emperor Akihito having issued a statement last year suggesting he desires to abdicate, the restrictions imposed on Imperial Family members and its relation to the Constitution's protections of human rights and liberties is again drawing attention.

    At the end of March this year, a room on the 34th floor of the Kasumigaseki Building in Tokyo became the site of an elementary school reunion for Gakushuin Primary School, with Emperor Akihito as one of those in attendance.

    Around 20 attendees were moved to Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, during World War II, and studied together in junior high school and high school. While many of them live quiet lives now, the Emperor continues to attend to many duties and since becoming Emperor had been unable until now to participate in an elementary school-only reunion.

    In order to have their meeting in private, even the participants' families were not allowed in the room, and the Imperial Household Agency staff and Emperor's bodyguards, who are always with him, waited outside. The Emperor moved between seats prepared at each of three tables and spoke to his old friends, after which he remarked, with a satisfied look, "It would be nice if we could keep doing things like this."

    One of the participants, Mototsugu Akashi, 82, said, "I respect his position (as Emperor), but to us His Majesty is just another human being."

    Back on Jan. 1, 1946, a message from Emperor Showa was published, calling for the unity of the populace and the construction of a peaceful nation in the aftermath of the war. This message said that the Emperor was not the incarnation of a god, and that the idea of him being the incarnation of a god would not be used as justification for the Japanese people to see themselves as superior and destined to rule the world. The message was a break with the earlier treatment of the Emperor as a god, and it became known because of this as a "declaration of humanity."

    In November that year, the Constitution of Japan was released, which established the Emperor as a "symbol of the State and of the unity of the People, deriving his position from the will of the people," but since the position of Emperor remained a special and hereditary one, it became an unusual existence under the Constitution, out of step with its advocacy for respecting basic human rights and equality under the law.

    The status of the Emperor and the Imperial Family is defined by the Constitution and the Imperial House Law. The Emperor is currently forbidden from abdicating, and the Crown Prince and eldest grandson in the line of descent are forbidden from disassociating themselves from the Imperial Family. Other members of the Imperial Family can only disassociate from it through a decision made by the Imperial Household Council, which includes Imperial Family representatives, the prime minister and the top justice of the Supreme Court. Male members of the Imperial Family are also required to receive a council decision before marrying.

    Due to being a symbol of the state and the Constitution stating the Emperor "shall not have powers related to government," the Emperor cannot engage in political activities and has limits on his freedom of speech and freedom of expression in regards to politics.

    Due to duty and security-related concerns, the Emperor and the Crown Prince are required to live on Imperial property like the Imperial Palace and the Akasaka Estate. While members of the Imperial Family are allowed to take up occupations that don't conflict with their status, the higher they are in the line of succession the more public duties they have, and as they are not allowed to refuse to succeed to the position of Emperor, they are, effectively, limited in what jobs they can do.

    While those born into the Imperial Family have no say in the matter of holding that position, there have been instances when Imperial Family members have commented on the restrictions they face. Akira Hashimoto, 83, a classmate of Emperor Akihito since they were in elementary school, remembers in a social studies high school class when the Constitution became the topic of discussion that Emperor Akihito, sitting next to him, muttered, "I don't like the idea of an inherited job." Hashimoto was surprised and couldn't give a response, but he says now, "His Majesty may have thought since that time that an emperor should have the freedom to choose his occupation."

    In 1982, another member of the Imperial Family, Prince Tomohito of Mikasa made news when he told the Imperial Household Agency he wanted to remove himself from the Imperial Family and focus on working to help the physically disabled. He withdrew his request after being talked out of it, but the issue became the subject of much discussion, including at the Diet.

    So far, the national government's stance put forward in debate at the Diet has been that while the Emperor has basic human rights, due to the special case of it being a hereditary position and the Emperor's position as a symbol for the people, a minimal level of restrictions on him are allowed under the Constitution. However, Itsuo Sonobe, a former Supreme Court justice who is knowledgeable about the Imperial Family system, says, "With our society growing older, as long as we recognize a human being as a symbol of state, we should not look at His Majesty's wishes from a constitutional viewpoint, but from a humanitarian one."

    He adds, "If the Imperial Family alone stands stuck in time while society changes, there will be people in the future who want to leave behind their Imperial Family position and people who will hesitate to enter into the Imperial Family to positions like that of the empress, which will affect the stable imperial succession."

    In August last year, around four months after the elementary class reunion, the statement from the Emperor suggesting he wanted to abdicate was released publicly. Akashi says, "His Majesty was born already carrying his (future) duties and post. The only thing he has wished for from the position of a regular person is his marriage to the Empress, who came from outside the Imperial Family, and being able to raise his children close to him."

    Regarding the Emperor's desire to abdicate, Akashi says, "These are his thoughts for the last, important parts of his life. As someone of the same generation, I want society to listen to his request."

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