Japan’s Emperor Akihito has spoken to his nation on TV for only the second time in his 82 years, and hinted that he would not mind standing down. Trouble is, the law won’t let him retire.
The emperor’s 10-minute recorded speech even stopped short of saying he wanted to abdicate, because Japanese law also says he’s not allowed to raise the subject.
Akihito, who has had heart surgery and prostate cancer, said his declining fitness levels had turned his mind to the future.
“I am concerned it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole body and soul as I have done so far,” he said.
Japan’s emperor is defined in the constitution as a symbol of the “unity of the people” and has no political power. Even expressing a desire to abdicate infringes on restrictions on political activity.
Reading between the lines, Akhito’s speech suggests he wants an orderly succession to avoid disruption to the everyday lives of Japanese people and the burden on other royal family members from the impaired health and possible death of an emperor.
The period of mourning following the death of an emperor can take up to a year, but there is no respite from the public duties required of the incoming monarch.
Opinion polls show the vast majority of Japanese sympathise with the emperor, but law changes would be needed to allow him to hand over the Chrysanthemum Throne.
After Akhito’s address, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe suggested the government might consider changing the laws to allow a smoother succession. It has four options:
- Continue with no abdication and no regent
- Appoint a regent
- Change the laws covering abdication or retirement
- Amend the “Imperial Household Law” completely.
Observers think the first or second choices are most likely.
Abe’s conservative power base is opposed to the idea of Akhito standing down. It fears reforms that might include the prospect of women being allowed to inherit the throne.
Akihito became emperor in 1989 after the death of his father, the wartime emperor Hirohito. He has lately been winding down official duties and handing them to his heir, crown prince Naruhito, 56.
Naruhito has one daughter. Under the current law the throne would pass to his brother, Prince Akishino, and then to Akhito’s nephew Hisahito, now 9.
Akihito’s only other televised speech was after the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster hit northeast Japan in March 2011.
Three European monarchs have abdicated this decade – Spain’s King Juan Carlos, the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix (who followed her mother’s example) and Belgium’s King Albert II. The run of abdications even struck the Vatican when Pope Benedict stepped down.