Emperor Akihito expressed his feelings about his own aging and his role as the symbol of the State in a video message to the public released on Aug. 8.
The Emperor, who has pursued a desirable role as the symbol of State, as defined by the postwar Constitution, frankly expressed concerns that "it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being" as he has undergone two surgical operations and is now 82 years old.
The Emperor also said, "It is not possible to continue reducing perpetually the Emperor's acts in matters of State and his duties as the symbol of the State" and expressed hope that "the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State can continue steadily without a break."
His message strongly suggests his wish to abdicate.
His message strongly shows the Emperor's awareness that not only performing ceremonial acts in matters of State but also spending his time with the Japanese public on his own will is the core of his role as the symbol of the State.
Such acts include his travel in Japan and overseas to mourn the war dead and visits to disaster-hit areas.
Emperor Akihito visited Saipan in 2005, which marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, and went to Palau last year on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war's end. This year, the Emperor visited the Philippines. Shortly after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the Emperor released a video message to encourage the people, particularly those in disaster-hit areas.
The public has been moved by such steady efforts made by the Emperor. As such the system of the Emperor as the symbol of the State has taken root in Japan through his concerted efforts with the people.
The Emperor has shown profound consideration for the future role of the Imperial Family.
Emperor Akihito acceded to the Imperial Thrown at the age of 55 after the demise of his father, Emperor Showa. Crown Prince Naruhito, is already 56. Considering how to ensure stable Imperial succession amid the aging of the population is a need of the times.
In his message, the Emperor expressed worries that he may not be able to steadily perform his official duties although the Emperor can serve as the symbol of State only if he can do so without concern.
Article 4 of the Constitution stipulates, "The Emperor shall perform only such acts in matters of State as are provided for in this Constitution and he shall not have powers related to government," thereby banning the Emperor from being involved in political activities.
There are some who argue that a regent can be appointed for the Emperor instead of allowing him to abdicate. In other words, these people are calling for expansion of the system under which a regent can perform official duties on behalf of an emperor in cases where an emperor is too young or in a serious condition.
However, Emperor Akihito said a regency system would not be a fundamental solution to the problem saying, "It does not change the fact that the Emperor continues to be the Emperor till the end of his life, even though he is unable to fully carry out his duties as the Emperor."
Article 1 of the Constitution stipulates that "the Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people, with whom resides sovereignty power." If the public can independently and proactively accept and make judgment on the Emperor's message, constitutional restraints can be overcome.
It goes without saying that there are numerous technical problems that must be overcome before allowing the Emperor to abdicate. Article 4 of the Imperial House Law states that "upon the demise of the Emperor, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne."
Since the law has no provision for abdication of the Emperor, the law needs to be revised to allow the Emperor to retire.
Nearly half of past emperors acceded to the Imperial Throne after their predecessors abdicated. In most cases, emperors abdicated because of their advanced age or illness. The abdication system was abolished after the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century because many problems involving the system had been pointed out. For example, if an emperor were to retire under political pressure or could abdicate on his own will, it could adversely affect stable Imperial succession. Therefore, it is necessary to take measures to prevent such problems before opening the way for the Emperor to abdicate.
Questions also remain about the title and role of a retired emperor. There had been cases in which an emperor became a grand emperor and set up cloister government while retaining his influence, but such a problem could hardly occur under the current system of the Emperor as the symbol of the State.
If Emperor Akihito were to hand over the Imperial Throne to Crown Prince Naruhito, the Crown Prince's younger brother, Prince Akishino, would be second in the succession line. However, there would be no crown prince in that case.
This would raise concerns that the Imperial succession line between generations could be severed. Considering the future of the Imperial Household, reform of the Imperial succession system, such as allowing a female member of the Imperial Family to accede to the Imperial Throne, could be discussed.
If the Emperor were to abdicate and hand over the throne to the Crown Prince, the era name would be changed from Heisei. The Era Name Act stipulates that an era name should be determined on the occasion of Imperial succession. However, the law states that a specific system and procedure for determining an era name should be provided for in a government ordinance. However, there are no detailed rules on the matter. Moreover, a massive amount of work would be required to change the era name requiring additional outlays from the Imperial Household budget.
There are proposals to enact a special measures law specifically allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate instead of revising the Imperial House Law, which would require extensive debate. The government will likely determine how to respond to the Emperor's wish to abdicate while keeping in mind opinions within the government and among the public.
Kings have abdicated in the Netherlands and Belgium, among other countries, to allow for generational changes. Diverse and careful discussions are needed to create an Imperial succession system suitable for Japan while using overseas examples as references.