A special law allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate has been enacted. The last time a Japanese emperor abdicated was two centuries ago. The law can thus be described as a turning point for the emperor system of contemporary Japan. In as little as a year and a half from now, Japan will usher in a new period to follow the Heisei era.
Among the books that Emperor Akihito read when he was Crown Prince is Yukichi Fukuzawa's "Teishituron" (On the Imperial Household). Shinzo Koizumi, then head of Keio University who was in charge of the Crown Prince's education, disclosed that he read the book with the young Crown Prince Akihito. The essay collection, which was written before the enactment of the Meiji Constitution, placed the Imperial Household outside the sphere of political strife, at the "core of harmony with the hearts of the people of Japan." Koizumi, who focused on the foresight of an emperor within the public sphere, used this work as a textbook for passing education on to the next imperial generation.
Under the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was elected as the "head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty." But after Japan's defeat in World War II, the emperor was designated as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people."
What is the emperor's role from the perspective of sovereignty of the people? Emperor Akihito was aware of the way things ought to be from a young age.
In a message in August last year, Emperor Akihito indicated that "awareness of being with the people" served as an aspect of his readiness to fill the role of "symbol of the State." In his words one can see a sincere stance in which he faces the people of Japan.
Soon after the war, discussion on the prospect of Emperor Hirohito abdicating to take responsibility for the war arose. Discussion on retirement also surfaced in connection with the Imperial House Law. However, based on the lessons learned from political strife of the past, such talk was passed over, and a system of lifetime reigns was maintained to prevent arbitrary and involuntary abdication.
If Emperor Akihito abdicated, it would be the first time in Japan's constitutional history for an emperor to do so, taking Japan's emperor system to a new level. The special law allowing him to step down was adopted unanimously by all voting lawmakers (The Liberal Party did not take part in the vote.) One could say that empathy with the Emperor, who has earnestly carried out his official duties, led to consensus within the Diet.
In the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the Great East Japan Earthquake and other natural disasters, the Emperor visited the affected areas, held the hands of people affected by the disasters and knelt beside them, encouraging them. He also turned his thoughts toward the deep wounds of war, and continued journeys that paid respects to those who died on battlefields, including a trip to Palau.
Japan has seen changes in the social situation accompanying its aging society. In a society of longevity where the average person's lifespan surpasses 80, it has become difficult for a system of lifetime rule to coexist together with a varied style of life.
In his message last August, Emperor Akihito mentioned "constraints" due to aging, such as in his physical fitness, and frankly admitted his uncertainty, saying, "I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now."
People do retire to private life when they grow old, and if the Emperor is earnestly trying to fulfill his role as a symbol of the State, it is only natural that he will eventually come up against physical constraints. This has been an inherent problem of the symbolic emperor system.
What exactly is the emperor to the people? The discussion that took place over roughly the past year could be described as an operation in which various parties have squarely looked at the current state of the symbolic emperor system, which has been taken for granted, with the Emperor and the public sharing their perceptions.
It is probably only natural for the form of the "symbol" to change in line with the personality of the emperor and social conditions at the time. Emperor Akihito and the people should engage in discussion conforming to the current age.
During the period of discussion on abdication, differences in people's perceptions of the emperor's position became clear. At a government meeting of a panel of experts, an opinion was voiced that, "it's enough (for the Emperor) just to pray at shrines." Initially the government was against abdication and moved to see whether it was possible to apply a regency under the current system.
There was a deep divide between many members of the public who thought abdication was natural, and hard-line conservatives who resisted the move. There was a lack of deep discussion about the symbolic emperor system including the appropriate form of his official duties.
The issue of abdication is inseparable from that of stable succession of the imperial throne. If Emperor Akihito steps down, then Japan will be left without a crown prince, and the sole successor from the children's generation will be Prince Hisahito, the first son of Prince Akishino.
The Diet passed a resolution requesting that the government consider the issue of stable imperial succession and measures to counter the declining size of the Imperial Family. It should probably quickly consider the establishment of female branches of the Imperial Family as a concrete measure.
Some conservatives have proposed reviving former Imperial Family branches that lost their imperial status at the end of World War II, in order to preserve the tradition of male succession. But 70 years have passed since the members of these branches became ordinary citizens, and their connection with the imperial household is faint. Furthermore, though they may have a male blood relationship, one must go back some 600 years to find an ancestor they share with the current Emperor. It is difficult to believe that the move of reviving such branches would win any public understanding.
Some say that Japan should allow an empress regnant or a matrilineal emperor. This would sever the tradition of male succession, but grant the right of imperial succession to female members of the Imperial Family and their children. Many people agree that this is a realistic approach when considering the background of gender equality and stable succession of the imperial throne. In any case, it is essential to discuss how the Imperial Household should be depicted in the future.
Japan will now prepare to establish an era name, and prepare for ceremonies accompanying abdication and enthronement. We hope that the prime minister's office and the Imperial Household Agency will come to a mutual understanding and make doubly sure they ensure smooth imperial succession.
How will the emperor system be portrayed in the future? Following the recent enactment of the special law, collaborative work between the Imperial Family and the public will continue.