Japanese Emperor Akihito addressed the nation Monday, releasing a rare video message to the public in which the 82-year-old strongly suggested that he wished to abdicate but avoided using that word directly.
Akihito — who became emperor in 1989 upon the death of his father, wartime Emperor Hirohito — said that while he was healthy at the moment, he had undergone two surgeries in recent years and had begun to “feel a decline in my fitness level.”
“I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now,” he said.
Japan’s Imperial Household Law, however, does not have any provision for abdication. Japan’s parliament, or Diet, would need to revise the law in order for him to abdicate and pass the Chrysanthemum Throne to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56.
Japan’s postwar Constitution says the emperor shall have no political role, and Akihito took pains to not appear that he was trying to tell government leaders what to do.
“While, being in the position of the emperor, I must refrain from making any specific comments on the existing imperial system, I would like to tell you what I, as an individual, have been thinking about,” he said.
Seated behind a desk and wearing a dark suit and blue tie, Akihito referenced his wide travels around Japan and abroad and said directly that he was concerned that if he were to become incapacitated, “society will come to standstill” and “people’s lives are impacted.”
Akihito is known as the “people’s emperor,” and he has made it a high priority to comfort victims of disasters and champion marginalized people such as the disabled and residents of remote islands. He’s also traveled widely across Asia, promoting reconciliation with countries affected by Japan’s colonialism and wartime aggression.
Reading from a sheaf of papers, he warned that if he were to die on the throne, funeral rituals for an emperor would call for “heavy mourning” events daily for two months, followed by funeral activities lasting one year. That, he said, would place “a very heavy strain” on those involved, “in particular the family left behind.”
“I sincerely hope for your understanding,” he said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reacting to the address in a brief statement, called the speech “very important,” adding, “We need to think about what to do to reduce the burden” on the emperor.
“That’s sort of what conservatives have been arguing — there’s no need to have an abdication provision because we have the regency option,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
“This emperor has always been awkward for right-wing groups who have been acting in his name but find he’s always distancing himself from their agenda,” Kingston added.
The professor noted, for instance, that Akihito has since 1978 continued his father’s boycott of visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine, where a number of Class-A Japanese war criminals are enshrined, and has challenged those who have sought to downplay Japan’s aggression in the war.
“He’s made it his business to address the unfinished business of his father’s legacy and tried to promote reconciliation through gestures of conciliation and atonement,” Kingston said.
This was evident last year when both Abe and Akihito made statements on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.
“Abe emphasized that those that died on the battlefield made possible the peace and prosperity we enjoy today, while the emperor said where we are today owes much to the hard work of Japanese citizens after the war,” Kingston said.
If parliament opens debate on revising the Imperial Household Law to permit abdication, it could also rekindle the controversial matter of whether Japan should allow women to inherit the throne. That is not currently permitted either.
“Conservatives like Abe in the Diet are not keen to focus on revising the Imperial Household Law. When you open up that Pandora’s box … clearly the issue of female succession will emerge and that’s anathema to Abe and other conservatives, even though it’s an issue where the public seems to be in favor,” Kingston said.
The emperor’s suggestion that Japanese politicians need to revise the Imperial Household Law may also be his way of slowing down Abe’s push to revise Japan’s pacifist postwar Constitution, said Noriko Kawamura, author of “Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War” and a professor at Washington State University.
If Akihito steps down, Naruhito is next in line. He and his wife, Masako, have a 14-year-old daughter, but she is not eligible to ascend to the throne.
Next in line after Naruhito are his younger brother, Prince Akishino, and Akishino’s son, Prince Hisahito, who is now 9. Akishino’s first two children were girls, and in the years before Hisahito was born in 2006, there was intense debate in Japan about who would be the imperial heir if neither Naruhito nor Akishino had a son.
Even if Abe’s government gets to work soon on steps to revise the Imperial Household Law, it could take several years for a transfer of power to happen, Kingston said.
What kind of emperor Naruhito would be isn’t entirely clear.
“Naruhito’s got a tough act to follow. He’s intelligent and articulate and has more energy than the emperor. And from all we know, he shares many of the emperor’s political views on reconciliation and wartime history,” Kingston said. “It won’t be that easy to win the hearts of the people but I think if he follows in his father’s footsteps, he will continue to enjoy the adoration his father commands.”
Kawamura noted that Naruhito is “outspoken and more independently minded” than Akihito. He and his wife were educated abroad, and Naruhito has publicly raised delicate topics such as the intense pressure that Imperial Household Agency officials have put on his wife, leading to mental health issues.
“They are more intellectual types and could be more dangerous to stubborn conservative right-wingers,” Kawamura said. “Akihito was successful in soothing knots between the imperial court and Japanese society, but I don’t know about Naruhito. Sometimes he speaks too much of his mind and even the press has been surprised.”
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1:30 a.m.: This article has been updated with quotes from Emperor Akihito’s address.
Aug 8, 12:40 a.m.: This article has been updated with analysis and quotes from scholars.
This article was originally published Aug. 7. at 11:45 p.m.