A statement made by conservative members of an expert panel discussing Emperor Akihito's possible abdication shocked him, it has been revealed.
The comment that "the Emperor should just perform imperial rituals" made by conservative members of the panel at a November 2016 hearing came as a great shock to the Emperor. His strong displeasure with the remark was communicated to the prime minister's office by parties related to the Imperial Household Agency.
In response to the fact that the government panel's debate about abdication was headed toward allowing for a one-time exception for Emperor Akihito, the Emperor said that such an exception would be considered selfish on his part, and sought the establishment of a system that would make it possible for any emperor to abdicate. Emperor Akihito also reportedly said, "I did not think that my will would be twisted into something it wasn't," expressing dissatisfaction with the government's plans.
"His Majesty was disconsolate," a source close to the Imperial Household Agency said. "Does the government panel not know the activities in which the Emperor has been involved?"
At the hearing in question, conservative experts selected on the basis of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's preferences -- including Sukehiro Hirakawa, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and the late Shoichi Watanabe, then professor emeritus at Sophia University -- made statements such as "The Imperial Family's meaning lies in its continued existence and its performance of imperial rituals. To ask any more of a role from an emperor is inappropriate." They argued that if the Emperor's official duties, such as visiting victims of disasters, were cut back to alleviate some of the burden on him, and he focused mostly on performing imperial rites, such as prayers at shrines, there was no need for him to abdicate.
A source who has a close personal relationship with Emperor Akihito said, "Such a statement is disrespectful toward the Emperor."
According to a televised address the Emperor made in August last year, he has, along with Empress Michiko, carried out his official duties with his "whole being" in order to gain the public's understanding, which he believes is crucial for the continuation of the emperor's role as a symbol of the state. Meanwhile, conservative experts declared the emperor's official duties as not necessarily indispensable. According to a senior Imperial Household Agency official, the remark amounted to a denial of how Emperor Akihito has lived his life, and apparently upset the Emperor greatly.
The agency official stated that the Emperor's discontent was only natural, and continued, "His Majesty is not performing imperial rites in the abstract. His face-to-face encounters with individual members of the public constitute the building blocks of his prayers for the peace, well-being and serenity of the people. Without his interactions with the public, his prayers would be vacuous."
The Emperor's August 2016 address, which hinted at his wish to abdicate, was the result of careful consideration of his role as a symbol of the state, as stipulated in the Constitution. Emperor Akihito strongly believes that unless he continues to gain and maintain the understanding of the public through his official duties of visiting disaster victims and performing imperial rites, he cannot continue to be Emperor.