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Conservative ruling party lawmakers wary of Emperor's possible abdication

A video message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is screened at a rally in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward held by groups aiming for constitutional revision, on May 3, 2016 -- Constitution Day. (Mainichi)

Conservative lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who back Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been wary of the possibility of Emperor Akihito abdicating the throne ever since the issue arose. And until recently, many of them had held the view that the situation should be handled by appointing a regent for the Emperor, with a source close to the prime minister saying that a compromise could be made by citing "disturbances to carrying out official duties" as a reason for establishing a regency. But, the source said, the Aug. 8 release of videotaped remarks by the Emperor, in which he expressed an unfavorable attitude toward establishing a regency, has now made it impossible to play that card.

The reason conservative legislators are cautious about abdication is the possibility that it could erode the emperor's status. There is fear that the stability of imperial succession could be undermined. It was the same reason that prompted conservative lawmakers to oppose government discussions in the past on whether to allow reigning empresses, matrilineal emperors, and female imperial family branches.

"(The conservative camp) fears that allowing for any change in the imperial system, whether it be matrilineal emperors or abdication, runs the risk of affecting the entire imperial system," explains a former senior government official who took part in deliberations on the revision of the Imperial House Law, which was passed in 1947.

Ever since the Meiji Constitution and the 1889 Imperial House Law were established, emperors have stayed in their position until their demises. Japan's first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, who was instrumental in drafting the Meiji Constitution, argued during a meeting in 1887 that once someone ascends to the Imperial Throne, they have no justification to abdicate at will. He saw the emperor as being "a pillar of the state" with complete control of sovereignty, but designed a system in which politics would not be affected by the will of an emperor. In addition, a manual on the 1889 Imperial House Law issued by Ito, pointed out that the Nanbokucho civil war that took place in the early Muromachi period was the result of the then emperor being forced to abdicate by vassals that had built up their own power.

The emperor's status also came into question after Japan lost World War II. In 1946, under the occupation of the Allied Powers, abdication rose as a topic in the Imperial Diet. However, then Minister of State Tokujiro Kanamori argued that "when carrying out symbolic responsibilities under the consensus of the Japanese public, one cannot abdicate based on the individual's circumstances." He also said, "For an emperor, the personal does not exist."

The current Constitution of Japan, which came into force in 1947, newly stipulated that emperors are "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people," but in combination with the revised Imperial House Law, Emperor Akihito's father, Emperor Showa, stayed on the throne until his demise.

When the possibility of abdication based on advanced age came up for discussion in the final years of Emperor Showa's life, the government held to its position that retired emperors historically caused adverse effects, that there was a possibility that an emperor could be forced to abdicate due to political reasons, and that arbitrary abdication would destabilize the emperor's status.

In his video message released on Aug. 8, Emperor Akihito proposed a shift in the modern imperial system. He stated that "in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts." As for his duties as the "symbol of the State and of the unity of the People," he stated, "I have felt that my travels to various places throughout Japan, in particular, to remote places and islands, are important acts of the Emperor as the symbol of the State and I have carried them out in that spirit." He also emphasized that as a symbol, it is important for the Emperor -- especially in the modern Heisei era -- to be and work "with the people."

One conservative constitutional scholar has expressed concern, however, saying, "His Majesty the Emperor is industrious and has expanded his public duties, but the more one raises the bar on what it means to be a symbol, the harder it gets for the next generation of emperors." Says another scholar who has close ties to the prime minister, "The status of an emperor remains stable because the will of politicians and individual emperors cannot intervene in the process of imperial succession. Debating abdication can undercut the pillar of the state." The scholar added, "The prime minister's office seems to be at a loss on how to handle the current situation."

Alongside the government's deliberations on the possibility of the Emperor's abdication, the LDP is set to begin intra-party talks on the issue. Conservative lawmakers have avoided commenting on the issue since the Aug. 8 release of the Emperor's video message, but a legislator close to the prime minister says, "The better-versed people are in the imperial system, the more cautious they are."

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