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Japan Political Pulse: Emperor's wish to abdicate raises questions on Imperial Throne handover

Emperor Akihito is scheduled to express his "feelings about his duty as the symbol of the state" and of the unity of the people in a video message at 3 p.m., Aug. 8.

    He will make a statement following news reports that he wants to abdicate.

    Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, got a scoop on the Emperor's wish to abdicate on the night of July 13, followed by newspaper reports.

    Nevertheless, the prime minister's office and the Imperial Household Agency have denied the reports. There is only one reason for that.

    If the government were to acknowledge that the Emperor has expressed his wish to retire, it would mean he has asked that domestic law be revised without national debate, running counter to Article 4 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the Emperor "shall not have powers related to government."

    Nonetheless, government officials never dismissed these news reports as being "groundless" undoubtedly because the reports are basically accurate.

    The Imperial House Law does not allow the Emperor to abdicate. Article 4 of the law states, "Upon the demise of the Emperor, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne."

    Needless to say, the Emperor could abdicate if the Imperial House Law were to be amended. In the prewar period, the Imperial House Law was treated as being of the same rank as the then Constitution. In the postwar period, however, the law is treated as a general law and can be revised by a majority of members of both houses of the Diet.

    Still, the Imperial House Law's provisions are closely related to Article 1 of the current Constitution, on the Emperor. If the law were to be revised, national debate similar to that on constitutional revisions would be required. However, there is not enough time for such debate, considering the Emperor's desire to abdicate.

    In response to the Emperor's wishes, a secret team within the government has begun preparations to submit to the regular Diet session next year a bill to amend the Imperial House Law to appoint Crown Prince Naruhito as regent for the Emperor.

    Paragraph 2, Article 16 of the Imperial House Law stipulates that a regency can be instituted only "in case the Emperor is affected with a serious disease, mentally or physically, or there is a serious hindrance and he is unable to perform his acts in matters of state."

    The clause does not allow the Crown Prince to be a regent for the Emperor. Therefore, the government has considered submitting a bill that would ease conditions for appointing a regent for the Emperor. Officials assumed that such revisions would easily win public understanding.

    However, Emperor Akihito is not asking for a regency. Without narrowing the perception gap, the Emperor will express his feelings about his duty and the prime minister will release a comment on the matter on Aug. 8.

    There are several possible reasons why the Emperor prefers to abdicate rather than have a regent appointed for him.

    When he was crown prince, Emperor Akihito assisted and served as a proxy for Emperor Hirohito over about a 1 1/2-year period after the late emperor's health condition worsened in September 1987. Emperor Akihito was not appointed as a regent for Emperor Hirohito, posthumously named Emperor Showa, but appears to have felt the limits to serving as a proxy for the Emperor.

    The Emperor also apparently is keeping in mind that Emperor Showa served as a regent for his father Emperor Taisho, who was undergoing medical treatment for illness, for about five years, when Emperor Showa was crown prince.

    Japan's society was turbulent when then Crown Prince Hirohito served as regent for his father -- the only period when a regent was appointed for the Emperor in modern history. Prior to the appointment of the regent in 1921, then Prime Minister Takashi Hara was assassinated. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and its vicinity, and a terrorist attempted to shoot the regent in an attack known as the Toranomon Incident.

    Then Crown Prince Hirohito became regent at the age of 20. Concerns over the ailing Emperor and the young regent added fuel to ongoing political strife. An assassination attempt on political bigwig Nobuaki Makino, who played a leading role in appointing Crown Prince Hirohito as regent for Emperor Taisho, and others was rooted in this turbulent period.

    Emperor Akihito is now aged 82 while Crown Prince Naruhito is 56. The current situation of the Imperial Family cannot simply be compared with the situation that surrounded Emperor Taisho and his regent. However, history shows that the political and economic situation tends to be turbulent at the time of Imperial succession.

    Emperor Akihito is not simply saying he wants to retire because of his advanced age. His wish to abdicate has called into question how the position of the Emperor as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people should be handed over.

    Reducing the burden of official duties on the Emperor isn't sufficient as a solution. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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