Japan’s public broadcaster reports that the emperor may abdicate, spurring denial and controversy

Japan's Emperor Akihito waves to well-wishers through bulletproof glass from a balcony during a 2016 New Year's public appearance in Tokyo.
(Franck Robichon / European Pressphoto Agency)

The news wasn’t new.

When Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, said Wednesday that Emperor Akihito intended to hand over his position while he is still alive, it was repeating what one of the country’s top weekly magazines had reported three years ago. Now, as then, the Imperial Household Agency vehemently denied it.

This time, however, the report blew up on social media, unleashing widespread speculation about the timing and the veracity as the once-esteemed broadcaster came under attack for “spreading lies.”

NHK reported that the 82-year-old emperor wanted to step down in the next few years, handing power to Crown Prince Naruhito. The emperor still conducts his main duties, including his constitutional functions.


Roughly half of the 125 previous Japanese emperors abdicated while they were alive. Such an abdication, however, has not occurred for about 200 years. The Imperial Household Law, which establishes the rules for the royal family and succession, currently has no stipulations regarding abdication.

NHK, which is funded with public money and is legally mandated to be fair and balanced in its reporting, was once lauded as the BBC of Japan. But it has recently come under attack for lacking objectivity.

In 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed his friend, Katsuto Momii, president of the broadcaster. Momii quickly stirred controversy by saying that programming should follow the Japanese government line, famously stating: “We can’t say it’s left, if the government says it’s right.”

A recently published book asserted that Abe’s Cabinet has a direct hand in deciding what NHK airs.


That belief has fueled speculation that there were political motives behind the report about the emperor.

The report came a day after the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported that the new chairman of the board of governors of NHK, Susumu Ishihara, was also a special advisor to the extreme right-wing religious group Nippon Kaigi.

The prime minister advises the political arm of the group, which advocates for a repeal of Japan’s pacifist constitution and believes that the emperor is akin to a god and should be reinstated as the head of state.

Some foreign media, along with some Japanese media, released their own stories quoting the NHK report. The broadcaster then reported on foreign media reporting on its reporting.


NHK has not directly addressed the Imperial Household Agency’s denial of its reports on the airwaves. Nor did it respond to The Times’ requests for comment.

Philip Brasor, a media columnist for the Japan Times, said that NHK is still the country’s gold standard for journalism: “If NHK says something first, the rest will report it since NHK tends to play it safe.”


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Adelstein is a special correspondent.