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News Navigator: What is the history behind abdication of emperors?

It has been reported that Emperor Akihito has expressed his intention to abdicate. The Mainichi answers some common questions readers may have about the news.

    Question: What is this news all about?

    Answer: According to some sources, Emperor Akihito wishes to pass on the throne to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, within a few years. However, there are no "terms" for emperors. The Imperial House Act, laws regarding the Imperial Family, was established in the Meiji period, and once crowned, emperors retain the title for life.

    Q: What about times before the Meiji period?

    A: It is believed that Empress Kogyoku, Japan's 35th monarch, was the first to step down when she passed the throne to her younger brother following the political transformation under the Taika Reform in 645. During the Heian period between the late eighth and early 12th centuries, abdication was a common practice among emperors. Those who abdicated in favor of a successor became "Daijo Tenno," and the title of "Ho'o" was given to former emperors who became monks. Former emperors were generally referred to as "In," which was an honorific title.

    The political system in which an emperor gives up the throne for a successor while retaining power is called the cloistered rule, or "Insei" in Japanese. Emperor Kokaku, great-grandfather of Emperor Meiji, was the last one to step down in 1817 and ruled under the Insei system.

    Q: Why was the Insei system abolished?

    A: It is believed that the system was scrapped in the pursuit of political stability. When a retired emperor meddled too much with politics it created a two-tiered power structure. There are examples of conflicts between former emperors and emperors in power at the time such as the Kusuko Incident of 810 and the Hogen Rebellion of 1156.

    Some politicians sought ways behind closed doors for Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) to abdicate following the end of World War II, but he held his title until his demise in 1989.

    Q: Will Emperor Akihito be able to step down?

    A: In addition to his public duties, the Emperor performs ritual ceremonies called "Saishi" to pray for the Japanese people. Emperor Akihito is 82 years old and he is close to the age of the oldest emperor ever served. It has long been pointed out that he is too busy for someone his age. Nevertheless, his possible abdication will be discussed in the government and the Diet since the issue is related to making revisions to the Imperial House Act. (Answers by Takumi Takenaka, bureau chief, Saitama Bureau)

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