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The reluctant emperor

At 83, the head of the world’s oldest monarchy wants to abdicate, but it may not be all that easy

By: Express News Service |
January 29, 2017 12:36:50 am
Japan, Japanese Monarch, Napolean Bonaparte, Japan PM, Emperor Akihito, Shinzo Abe, Abe, japan news, world news Akihito, who took over from his father Hirohito in 1989, has a history of breaking with tradition.

The last time a Japanese monarch abdicated his throne, in 1817, the Marathas were still at war with the British East India Company, Romantic poetry was in vogue and Napolean Bonaparte was alive, exiled to St Helena, the remote island in the Atlantic. So when the current ruler, Emperor Akihito, 83, hinted in August last year that he would like to step down, it opened a can of worms in the island nation, where, curiously for the 21st century, the imperial throne is highly revered.

Akihito, who took over from his father Hirohito in 1989, has a history of breaking with tradition. He is the first Japanese emperor, in a dynasty dating back 2,600 years, to marry a commoner, Empress Michiko, through a courtship dubbed by the press as the “tennis court romance” as the duo met due to their shared love for the game. He has publicly acknowledged his ties to the Korean royal family, a taboo in a country where those of Korean descent are discriminated against and which has grappled with the Korean comfort women issue. And he has expressed remorse for the victims of Japan’s wartime aggressions, even when his country’s politicians have been reluctant to do so.

His current offer, however, is the most unprecedented. Though there is great public sympathy for the ailing emperor (South China Morning Post says a survey found 85 per cent approval for the abdication), who has undergone heart surgery and has had prostate cancer treatment in the recent past, abdication poses practical, political and legal challenges.

For one, it is not possible under current Japanese law, drafted by the Americans after World War II, and any revision would be Parliament’s job. But the emperor isn’t supposed to comment on parliamentary business. The revision to law itself had deeply divided Japan’s political spectrum with conservatives in the right-leaning ruling Liberal Democratic Party, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, favouring a one-off legislation covering just this emperor while opposition Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and others favouring institutionalising abdication.

“Allowing an abdication, even just for this emperor, would set a precedent and cause instability to the dynastic system,” The Washington Post quotes Hidetsugu Yagi, professor of law at Reitaku University, as having said. Conservatives believe that this would also increase political meddling in the imperial system.

The ensuing succession debate has had its first outcome: On January 23, a panel told the Prime Minister that a one-time special legislation would be the best bet for abdication. It will now come up before the Japanese parliament.

Another reason for the reluctance of the conservatives is that it could usher in a debate on whether women should be allowed to take the throne. “On this point, conservative Japan is adamant, and the constitution is on its side: the throne belongs to men, and men alone,” writes Ilaria Maria Sala in South China Morning Post. Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Masako, 52, a Harvard-educated diplomat, have only a daughter, Princess Aiko. After Naruhito, the next in line is his nephew Hisahito, 9, the son of Naruhito’s brother, Akishino.

“Not everybody thinks this is entirely fair, and while most Japanese support the imperial family and its current role, it is not clear how many would really oppose the crowning of an empress,” Ilaria writes.

Then there is the question of title and duties. The emperor has no political powers but has several official duties, such as greeting foreign dignitaries. But a title a former emperor takes is a touchy issue. “History suggests Akihito should get the title joko, meaning retired emperor. But some experts say the term finds an echo in ancient episodes when the former emperor retained power and clashed with his successor. They prefer terms such as zen tenno or moto tenno, meaning former, or previous, emperor respectively,” writes Linda Sieg in Reuters.

The possible abdication, the BBC notes, “will affect one aspect of everyday life — the calendar”. While Japan adopted the standard Gregorian calendar in late 19th century, it never fully replaced Japan’s own nengo or gengo calendar system. “Since 1868, each era has begun and ended with an emperor’s reign. The current era is called Heisei, meaning ‘achieving peace’. So the name of any given year is composed of the era and the number of years the emperor that the era is named for has reigned. For example most of 2017 is Heisei 29 — the 29th year of Heisei, Emperor Akihito’s reign,” BBC says.

Which probably explains why, according to Japanese media, the government may consider letting Naruhito assume the crown on January 1, 2019, a date that would finally synchronise the traditional Imperial calendar with the modern Gregorian one.

But the most significant effect of Akihito’s decision, according to Bill Powell of Newsweek, will be the political ramifications for the island nation and the Pacific region. Powell points out that the emperor’s pacifist stance is at odds with that of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a popular conservative who wants a more robust role for Japan’s military, which calls for a change in the Constitution. And Crown Prince Naruhito is believed to share his father’s opposition to any changes to the document. “It’s not likely Abe will back off; so the stage may be set for a historic debate with the political establishment on one side and the ostensibly apolitical Chrysanthemum Throne on the other,” Powell writes.

Japanese literary critic Norihiro Kato believes that this may be the explicit reason behind Akihito’s push for abdication. “The more persuasive interpretation (of abdication), to my mind, is that Emperor Akihito has been so deeply disturbed by the Abe administration’s efforts to transform the Constitution — not only to politicise the role of the emperor, but also to dispense with the so-called peace clause that prohibits Japan from engaging in war — that he is trying to delay their progress, perhaps until after the end of Mr Abe’s term in 2018. In other words, Emperor Akihito may be hoping to raise another constitutional issue, and one more pressing than the others: Because of his age and who he is, it would have to be taken up first,” he writes in The New York Times.

And in that, says Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, is a “giant historical” irony. “Well, what is an emperor doing in a 21st-century democracy anyway? The answer is that he shouldn’t have been there. But he is there. And it is to his credit that he has made it a democratic monarchy, basically. It’s not going to change politics, but it is going to at least shade it in a direction that isn’t the one Abe and the conservatives would like,” Gluck tells Isaac Chotiner of Slate.

Curated by Arun Prashanth Subramanian

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