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Emperor Showa request to keep initiative for Imperial House Law changes rejected by GHQ

Emperor Hirohito, Emperor Akihito's father and posthumously known as Emperor Showa, requested to have emperors' right to initiate Imperial House Law revisions kept in the postwar Constitution when he was presented a draft compiled by the Allied Powers' General Headquarters (GHQ) -- a key factor when debating whether to revise the law or establish special legislation allowing Emperor Akihito to step down.

Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara (1872-1951) presented Emperor Showa the draft Constitution written by the GHQ on March 5, 1946. The Emperor, who did not demand any change in war-renouncing Article 9, wanted to make alterations to keep the emperor's powers over Imperial House Law revisions guaranteed under the Meiji Constitution.

Under the Meiji Constitution, the Imperial House Law was a supreme law parallel to the Constitution, and it stipulated that amendments to the Imperial House Act did not require proceedings at the Imperial Diet. The provision was meant to signify that the emperor existed outside the framework of the Constitution.

GHQ, however, did not allow this undemocratic exception and treated the Imperial House Law as a regular law that required Diet decisions under the draft Constitution. It was on Feb. 13, 1946, that the Japanese government received this draft.

After receiving the draft, then Cabinet Minister Joji Matsumoto repeatedly demanded GHQ reconsider the Constitution plan, including not making the Imperial House Law a regular law and granting the emperor the right to initiate revisions to it. Sophia University professor emeritus Katsutoshi Takami points out that Matsumoto might have made requests to GHQ on behalf of Emperor Showa.

At a meeting in late February 1946 between the Japanese government and GHQ, officials held a heated debate. Matsumoto argued that the Imperial Family had autonomy. However, GHQ government section head Major General Courtney Whitney protested, saying that unless the Imperial House Law was subject to Diet decisions, the principle of respect for popular sovereignty would be superficial.

On March 2, unable to give up on making GHQ accept Emperor Showa's demand, the Japanese government created its own draft Constitution that included a supplementary provision, which stated that as an exception only an emperor would be given the right to initiate revisions to the Imperial House Law, though proposed revisions would have to get Diet approval. The government proposed the plan to GHQ two day later, but it was flatly rejected.

In light of these developments, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau views the Imperial House Law stipulated under Article 2 of the current Constitution as part of regular legislation. The article states that imperial succession is to be carried out "in accordance with the Imperial House Law passed by the Diet."

Legislation Bureau Director-General Yusuke Yokobatake backed this understanding at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on Sept. 30, saying, "Article 2 of the Constitution states that issues related to imperial succession should be handled under 'the Imperial House Law passed by the Diet.' In other words, they are to be dealt with under a regular law." This understanding of the law is the basis for the argument that Emperor Akihito's abdication is possible by establishing special legislation.

The discussion held in 1946 over the emperor's right to initiate revisions to the Imperial House Law lingers in the debate over Emperor Akihito's August speech in which he indicated his wish to step down. Sukehiro Hirakawa, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, argues that Emperor Akihito asked to make revisions to the Imperial House Law through his speech and "it could go against the Constitution."

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