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No progress on debate over reducing Imperial Family's burdens as succession nears

Emperor Akihito makes his way to the Imperial Sanctuary of the Three Palace Sanctuaries to report his abdication and its date, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at around 10 a.m. on March 12, 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency)

TOKYO -- Crown Prince Naruhito, who will inherit almost all of the activities that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko carry out, expressed his intention to also inherit their approach at a February press conference. He said, "I would like to pursue my duties as the symbol (of the state) by always being beside the Japanese citizens, and sharing joy and sorrow with the people, as His Majesty and Her Majesty have done."

The emperor's activities expanded greatly during the Heisei era. Emperor Akihito, in exploring what it means to be a symbol, proactively interacted with members of the public under the principle of "sharing joy and sorrow with the people." He did not restrict his activities to state acts and traditional events as stipulated by the Constitution, but traveled domestically and abroad to honor those who perished in war, and visits to those hit by disasters became a well-established part of his duties.

In a video message released in August 2016, the Emperor spoke frankly about his concerns of becoming unable to carry out his public duties wholeheartedly as he grew older. It could be said that he was questioning what it meant to be a symbolic emperor. The following month, the government set up an expert panel tasked with deliberating ways to reduce the burden of public duties on the Emperor. A route toward abdication was made the priority, however debate on the activities carried out by the Emperor was not facilitated.

"There is no definition for an emperor's public duties aside from acts in matters of state," Isao Tokoro, an expert on the history of the Imperial System and a professor emeritus at Kyoto Sangyo University said. "There is a need to think of a new way of doing things, using the upcoming abdication and ensuing succession as an opportunity to do so." But there are no signs that such discussion is taking place. The Imperial Household Agency's review of the emperor's public duties led to no fundamental changes. A senior agency official explained, "Since the new emperor will be younger, we decided to pass the baton with duties as they currently are."

Crown Prince Naruhito has expressed his enthusiasm for pursuing what is required of the Imperial Family "in accordance with the changing times." At a press conference last year, he said that "depending on changes in society, what society seeks from the Imperial Family will change. It is important that we respond to that." The Crown Prince also wants to apply the knowledge he has gained through his research on issues surrounding water, including natural disasters and the environment, to his duties as emperor.

Some criticize that the range of activities carried out by the Imperial Family is expanding as the number of Imperial Family members dwindles. Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor of modern and contemporary Japanese history at Nagoya University, says there is a need for a nationwide discussion on the issue. "The bar has been lowered for the public to seek certain things from the Imperial Family. We can't deny that the Imperial Family's desire to stay by the side of the people has made them busier. Now is the time to scrap the current way of doing things and build a new one," he suggested.

(Japanese original by Nao Yamada and Hiroyuki Takashima, City News Department)

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