Emperor Akihito: Post-Abdication Scenario In Japan – Analysis


Japan’s Imperial system, the only of its kind in the world, has been in news since the current Emperor Akihito announced in a live television broadcast in August 2016 his desire to abdicate from his throne as he was less confident than before to discharge his national duties owing to failing health. In his message the Emperor had felt “worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole beings as I have done until now”. This presented itself with a new situation for the government as the Imperial House Law that governs the Imperial family does not have any provision for abdication. Currently, death is the only path to succession. At present, only posthumous succession is allowed under the 1947 Imperial House Law.

For the Japanese people, the institution of the Emperor is sacred and there is an element of divinity attached to it. After the War, the Constitution has limited the role of the Emperor and the royal family’s cultural role has been curtailed. Before the War, Emperor Hirohito was considered as divine, as next to God, but during the Allied Occupation, Emperor Hirohito issued a rescript renouncing the idea that he was a living God.

The current Heisei era commenced after Emperor Akihito succeeded when his father Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, ending his long reign of 64 years of the Showa era and ushering the new Heisei era. The decision to name the current reign as Heisei, which means ‘achieving peace’, was appropriate as Japan was keen to bury its militaristic past and keen to be known as a peace-loving nation. The fundamental aim of the reign was to heal the wounds wrought by war waged in the name of his father, Emperor Hirohito. Article 9 of the Constitution has also provided the legal back-up to Japan’s self-defined goal of promoting peace in the world and never again to wage war. In the 29 years of reign, the current Emperor has remained as the country’s unifying force and conducted his role with dignity.

If the Emperor relinquishes his throne while alive, it would be the first such case since Emperor Kokaku did so some 200 years ago. The immediate concern for the government is to finalise the name of the new era as the reigns of all previous Emperors are given the name of an era during the years their reigns are in force. If the Emperor indeed abdicates, which seems to be the case as the government can do nothing if the Emperor is firm, that would put an end to the current Heisei era, introduced in 1989 following the death of his father Hirohito (posthumously called Emperor Showa) and usher in a new gengo, the Japanese term for an era name, for the first time in about 30 years.

Japan has a unique way to identify a year. Though the practice originated in ancient China, historians say that Japan is the only country that adheres to such a practice, though the common international practice is to use and follow the Western calendar. Gengo has no year zero. For example, when the current Emperor’s reign began in 1989, it is called Heisei 1 and not Heisei 0. Therefore the year 2017 correspond to Heisei 29.

The naming of an era is a serious matter for the government. Each gengo is believed to represent an ideal of an era and in principle consists of two auspicious kanji, including hei (peace), ei (eternal), ten (heaven) and an (safety). In Japan’s imperial history, the first era started in 645 under the name Taika and subsequent 247 era names including up to Heisei. If Emperor Akihito abdicates, the name of the new Emperor’s reign would be the 248th.

The naming of an era is important for Japanese ethos, though plenty of changes have to be made in important records, such as official IDs, driver’s licenses, health insurances cards, bank books and so on when a new era commences. Japanese people take pride in explaining their identity by emphasising which era they were born.

As per the old version of the Imperial House Law before and during the War, the Emperor was the ultimate authority to determine the name of a new era upon his accession. This changed during the Allied Occupation and was stripped of its legal status. But debates to enshrine this into law resumed when Emperor Hirohito’s impending death loomed large and finally acquired a new legal status in the 1970s. Following an opinion poll by the Cabinet office that revealed 87.5 per cent of the public using gengo in their daily lives paved the way for the Diet to pass a law in 1979 authorising the Cabinet to designate eras. This Era Name Law stipulates the name of an era can only be updated in tandem with a change in the Imperial Throne. The Era Name Law thus transferred the power to name a new era from an Emperor to the Cabinet.

So, when Emperor died on 7 January 1989, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi announced in an emergency news conference within hours of the Emperor’s demise the start of the Heisei Era, effective the following day. It appears the government had already considered several names by consulting experts and chairpersons of the two chambers of the Diet and chosen the name of the new era.

Since the surprise announcement by the current Emperor Akihito in August 2016 expressing his desire to abdicate, the government probably is already with the name of the New Era but unlikely to reveal. Though the government normally is expected to go through the legal processes to choose the new name of a new era in the event of impending death of the living Emperor, public discussion is taboo. This situation could change this time as the Emperor himself has expressed desire to abdicate. So, discussion on the name of a New Era could be acceptable this time.

There are speculations that this time the government is unlikely to solicit public discussion to decide new Imperial Era Name should Emperor Akihito relinquishes the throne. In the present situation, the succession from Emperor Akihito to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, could take place at a predetermined date because the government plans to announce the new era name at least several months before the Emperor’s envisioned abdication.

The Abe government is reportedly seeking to pass special legislation in the Diet that would allow the Emperor to pass on the Chrysanthemum Throne without dying, a move that will bring the Heisei Era to an end. An idea to change the era name on the first day of 2019 has been floated. Currently, death is the only path to succession because the Imperial House Law lacks a provision for abdication. If Emperor abdicates, it would be Japan’s first since Emperor Kokaku did so some 200 years ago in 1817. Then current law prohibiting abdication is based upon concerns enshrined in 19th century Japanese law that saw such a move as threatening the nation’s stability.

A start of a new era with both a new Emperor and abdicated Emperor would have dramatic influence in the society. Computer programmers and engineers shall have significant workload to rework on their systems. Developing smartphone apps and websites would mean a lot of work adjusting the systems. Revisions to every contents concerned would be a laborious task for programmers. But if the abdication is announced much in advance, there would be less possibility of chaos as good amount of time would be available to make the readjustments wherever needed such as on drivers’ licences and bank books.

Domestic debate

Abdicatation debate is a delicate issue in Japan and open discussion is taboo. The Abe government ought to seek consensus over legislation between the ruling and opposition parties for the Emperor’s abdication. The leaders of ruling parties and opposition are seeking consensus over the legislation, based on the fact that Article 1 of the Constitution stipulates that the Emperor’s status derives from “the will of the people”. In its points of discussion, the panel discussed the advantages and the disadvantages of two proposals: institutionalizing abdication in principle or allowing only the current Emperor to do so.

There are several opinions on the proposed bill. Conflict has arisen over whether to create a special measures law to enable abdication only for the current Emperor or to institutionalise abdication by revising the Imperial House Law. Both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito are on the same page to build consensus between the ruling and opposition parties based on the government’s plan. The opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai is also in favour of consensus-building. However, the Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party call for institutionalising abdication by revising the Imperil House Law.

The issue of creating female branches of the Imperial family also had cropped up sometimes ago when the Crown Princess delivered a baby girl. The discussion was buried soon enough as no strong advocacy emerged to such an idea.

When Prime Minister Abe formed a panel led by Takashi Imai, honorary chairman of the Keidanren business lobby to consider the matter, eight experts supported the idea of abdication, citing the Emperor’s own wishes and public opinion polls showing widespread support for letting Emperor Akihito step down. The conservative experts opposed abdication, preferring regency or have another imperial family member stand in for the emperor in his official duties in case Emperor Akihito is unable. The government is weighing the option of a one-time exception for Emperor Akihito. Some, however, want a permanent solution to the problem. However, many opposition parties consider a one-time provision for abdication to be a hasty response and therefore call for a comprehensive reform of the Imperial system. The opposition feels that a predetermined goal of granting an exception for the current emperor alone is not appropriate.

The point in contention was how to define the “will of the people and the situation at the time” to make abdication legally possible. It was argued that if abdication is institutionalised, it “could allow those in power at the time to arbitrarily interpret and apply required conditions [for abdication], as well as use [their decisions] as a basis for justifying themselves.” As it transpires, not all political parties are on the same page on abdication.

The panel considered three categories of duties that the Emperor performs: mandatory ceremonies stipulated by the Constitution, non-mandatory public duties performed based on an emperor’s own will, and private duties of an emperor, such as Shinto ceremonies and academic studies. The current Emperor has truly served as the symbol of the state and unity of the people by keeping his role limited to public duties, including attending numerous ceremonies with foreign dignitaries and visits across the country, including those in disaster-hit areas. Though some conservatives argue that Emperor Akihito can have his non-mandatory public duties greatly reduced, and a regent can be installed to perform the ceremonies stipulated by the Constitution, such proposal does not find any support and is likely to be rejected.

It is not easy to remove all confusions related to the abdication issue. Defining general conditions of an Imperial retirement owing to “advanced age”, as is the case in Emperor Akihito, could vary depending on an emperor’s health condition and ever-extending life spans in Japan. So the argument goes in favour of one-off legislation for the current Emperor than exercising the option for permanent reform applicable to all future Emperors. This would, it is argued, eliminate any “arbitrary abdication” that might be forced by a certain political group.

Amid all these confusion, it appears that the Emperor would get his hinted wish. Though the Emperor and the Imperial family do not have any direct role in the affairs of the State, it is seen not beyond a kind of symbol and decoration. On its part, the Emperor has made efforts to humanize his office and earned affection of the people.

The accession to the throne by present Crown Prince Naruhito if Emperor Akihito abdicates would mean adding another national holiday on the new Emperor’s Birthday. The government then shall struggle to work what would be the status of the abdicated Emperor. Currently, 23 December, the birthday of Emperor Akihito, is designated a national holiday. Even Emperor Hirohito’s birth day on 29 April still remains a holiday in what is known as Showa Day. Japan shall be facing plenty of confusions in the coming time in case Emperor Akihito abdicates. Traditionally, the title would be joko, meaning “retired emperor” but it could be problematic as the former emperor’s role could clash with the successor. Other experts argue, it would be more appropriate to call zen tenno or moto tenno, meaning “former” or “previous” emperor, respectively.

It is not easy to remove all confusions related to the abdication issue. Defining general conditions of an Imperial retirement owing to “advanced age”, as is the case in Emperor Akihito, could vary depending on an emperor’s health condition and ever-extending life spans in Japan. So the argument goes in favour of one-off legislation for the current Emperor than exercising the option for permanent reform applicable to all future Emperors. This would, it is argued, eliminate any “arbitrary abdication” that might be forced by a certain political group.

Female Succession?

Should this occasion be used to explore if a female line of succession to the Imperial throne be introduced? Currently, the accession is limited to males descended from the male Imperial line. The argument is based on the premise that if Prince Hisahito, the son of Prince and Princess Akishino (Crown Prince Naruhito’s’s younger brother) does not have a male child, there would be nobody to accede to the throne. So, there are many uncertainties regarding the future of the Imperial family. Currently, only three Imperial members have the right of succession to the Imperial throne. Prince Hisahito is the only one from the generation of the Emperor’s grandchildren.

When Junichiro Koizumi was Prime Minister, in 2005 this issue was debated intensely and the question of having females and their descendants be granted the right to ascend the throne was discussed. The birth of Prince Hisahito on 6 September 2006 stalled the proposal from moving further. The issue of female Imperial branches came to the table for discussion in view of the decrease in Imperil family member. Prince Hisahito, now 11 years old, is third in line of succession after his uncle and father. For the present, the question of female Imperial branches, who currently not eligible and also lose their Imperial status through marriages are not relevant to the succession issue but could re-emerge in the future when situation might change. The Cabinet then would be grappling with the legality of such a situation.

The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. Views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent either that of the ICCR or Government of India.

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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