By JONATHAN SOBLEAUG. 7, 2016 The New York Times
TOKYO — It has been something of an open secret in Japan that Emperor Akihito would like a privilege most people take for granted: At 82, he wants to retire. The question is whether the Japanese and their elected leaders will let him.
In an extraordinary televised address on Monday, the popular emperor spoke publicly about the issue for the first time. Though his words were characteristically vague — he discussed his age, his rigorous daily schedule, and what he called his increasing physical limitations — the message was unmistakable.
“I am concerned that it will become more and more difficult for me to fulfill my duties as a symbolic emperor,” he said in a pre-recorded address that lasted about 10 minutes and was broadcast on multiple Japanese television networks.
If Akihito steps down, the move could redefine Japan’s royal family, the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. While the emperor now has only symbolic power, an abdication could also resurrect a contentious issue in Japan: the debate over allowing a woman to occupy the throne.
First reported in banner headlines by Japanese news media in July, Akihito, who has been treated for cancer and heart problems, was said to want to retire and pass the title to his son Crown Prince Naruhito, 56. Prince Naruhito appears to share his father’s quiet temperament and wish to keep the monarchy apolitical.
But succession is complicated because of Japanese law, which says an emperor serves until death.
Japanese emperors define eras in the country. Its unique calendar is based on their reigns: 2016 is expressed as Akihito’s 28th year on the throne, and when his successor takes over, the date will reset to Year One.
Akihito’s father, Hirohito, died in 1989 — Year 64 of his reign — as both the Cold War and Japan’s economic boom years were drawing to a close, intensifying the sense of a historical shift.
There is no legal provision for abdication from the Chrysanthemum Throne held by the emperor’s family for almost 2,700 years, according to the official genealogy, which stretches back to mythical times.
Akihito effectively asked Parliament to change the rules, though experts say he could only do so in the most indirect words. That is to avoid seeming to meddle in politics, which has been forbidden to Japan’s emperors since the country’s defeat in World War II, waged in Hirohito’s name.
After the war, Akihito’s father stunned his subjects by declaring that he was not a god, overturning decades of government propaganda and centuries of loosely held tradition. A new Constitution, imposed by the victorious United States, stripped him of political power and relegated the monarchy to a purely ceremonial role.
If Parliament granted Akihito’s wish to abdicate, it would be the biggest transformation of the Japanese monarchy since the war.
“Historically, it was extremely common for emperors to abdicate,” said Takeshi Hara, an authority on the imperial family at the Open University of Japan. More than half of Japan’s monarchs have vacated the throne, often for quiet retirement at Buddhist monasteries. Only in the 19th century, when Japan’s leaders created the cult of emperor worship, did quitting become impossible.
Akihito maintains an often punishing schedule, despite treatment for prostate cancer in 2003 and heart surgery in 2012. He and his wife, Empress Michiko — the first commoner to marry into the imperial family — have become consolers in chief for victims of natural disasters, like the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of northern Japan in 2011.
In February, they visited the Philippines, one of numerous foreign trips intended to make amends for Japan’s depredations during the war.
In recent years some have come to see Akihito as a quiet but powerful guardian of Japan’s postwar pacifist identity, even as Japan’s conservative government has sought to loosen decades-old legal restrictions on the military.
Opinion surveys conducted by Japanese news media suggest that the public supports Akihito’s wish to abdicate. As many as 85 percent of respondents, depending on the survey, say they favor amending the Imperial Household Law to allow it.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be hard pressed to deny him, an amendment process could prove awkward for Mr. Abe’s government.
“This opens other cans of worms,” said Kenneth Ruoff, the director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University and the author of “The People’s Emperor,” a history of the postwar Japanese monarchy.
Many see the Imperial Household Law as outdated in other ways, particularly regarding gender. The law says only men can inherit the throne, a provision that is increasingly in dispute. A decade ago, during a debate about whether the law should be changed to open the way for female monarchs, conservatives in Mr. Abe’s right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party were firmly opposed.
Today, Mr. Abe’s government has embraced the rhetoric of female empowerment in other areas, notably in the workplace, but few think it is ready to extend the idea to the monarchy.
Prince Naruhito is the older of the imperial couple’s two sons. “He represents continuity,” Professor Ruoff said.
One issue, whatever the timing of the succession, will be the public role of Naruhito’s wife, Masako, a Harvard- and Oxford-educated former diplomat who has chronic depression, which has kept her secluded for much of the last 15 years.
In 2004, Naruhito appeared to blame the strictures of imperial life for Masako’s illness, saying unnamed antagonists had sought to “deny Masako’s career and personality.” How the experience might inspire him, as emperor, to try to change the highly insular monarchy is unclear.
Professor Ruoff said Akihito’s biggest achievement had been to focus attention on social welfare causes. When Japan hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964, Akihito became the patron of the then-obscure Paralympics. At the time, people with disabilities were often shunned and stigmatized in Japan.
“Akihito and Michiko have spent a tremendous amount of time leveraging their prestige on behalf of the least privileged members of Japanese society,” Professor Ruoff said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are the conscience of the nation, but they do draw attention to these issues.”