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The Emperor Initiates an Important Conversation

Tags: Emperor , Constitution , Japan , History , Society and Culture

Yakushiji, Katsuyuki

March 09, 2017

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Pedestrians in Tokyo watch a monitor showing Emperor Akihito delivering a video message on August 8, 2016. © Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Pedestrians in Tokyo watch a monitor showing Emperor Akihito delivering a video message on August 8, 2016. © Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Emperor Akihito’s rare televised address to the nation last August made news primarily as a statement of the aging monarch’s desire to step down while still able to perform his duties. Here Katsuyuki Yakushiji focuses on the speech’s broader message: the need for serious dialogue on the role of the emperor in contemporary Japanese society.

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Last August, speaking slowly and deliberately with carefully chosen words, Emperor Akihito spoke to the nation in a rare video message conveying his desire to abdicate. “When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining,” he said, “I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now.”

Until now, the Japanese people had complacently assumed that the 83-year-old emperor—like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him—would occupy the throne until his death. Indeed, under current Japanese law, abdication is not even an option. This is the most obvious reason that the emperor’s televised address was so surprising.

But the implications of the 10-minute video go beyond the immediate issue of abdication. “Ever since my accession to the throne,” Emperor Akihito said, “I have carried out the acts of the emperor in matters of state, and at the same time I have spent my days searching for and contemplating on what is the desirable role of the emperor, who is designated to be the symbol of the state by the Constitution of Japan.” Here and throughout his address, the emperor stressed his ongoing efforts to define a meaningful and relevant role for the emperor and the imperial family in today’s society.

What is that role? It is a question that may finally be getting the attention it deserves.

Historical Role of the Emperor

Japan’s imperial household is acknowledged to be the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, extending back some 1,500 years. Its origins, shrouded in myth, are unclear, but it is certain that the imperial institution as we know it today was firmly established by the beginning of the eighth century. While some of the early emperors are thought to have wielded considerable political power, the period of direct imperial rule was quite brief. Through most of recorded history, the Japanese emperor has functioned as the embodiment of a higher authority, conferring legitimacy on the actual rulers of the time—typically the heads of powerful noble or warrior clans—while keeping a distance from mundane political and governmental affairs. This system helped to maintain the continuity of the imperial house amid the power struggles and political vagaries of the day.

This state of affairs continued—more or less uninterrupted and unquestioned—until the Meiji Restoration, less than 150 years ago. The Constitution of the Empire of Japan, which went into effect in 1890, established Japan as a modern constitutional monarchy with the emperor as sovereign ruler and head of state. Describing the emperor as “sacred and inviolable,” the Meiji Constitution gave the monarch command of the military and ultimate authority over the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

On paper, this marked a dramatic shift. However, in actual practice, the emperor remained essentially a potent figurehead, endowed with great spiritual authority but almost no power to influence policy. Under the Meiji Constitution, the supreme authority of the “sacred and inviolable” emperor became a tool for legitimizing the policies of a particular party or military clique. So it was that the military ultimately took control of national policy and plunged Japan into a disastrous war.

After World War II, the legal status of the emperor again underwent a dramatic shift. The 1947 Constitution of Japan, drafted and promulgated under Allied Occupation, places executive power in the cabinet and makes the cabinet, under the prime minister, collectively responsible to a democratically elected Diet. Article 1 of the postwar Constitution defines the emperor as a “symbol of the State and of the unity of the People, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” Moreover, Article 4 clearly rules out any involvement in policy or politics, stating that “the Emperor . . . shall not have powers related to government.” While the Constitution gives the emperor a ceremonial role in affairs of state, including appointment of the prime minister “as designated by the Diet,” it does not recognize the emperor as a higher authority that confers legitimacy on the prime minister. While preserving the imperial institution, it relegates the emperor to the vague status of a “symbol.”

Why the Emperor Wants to Abdicate

What is the proper role for such a monarch? By Emperor Akihito’s own account, this is an issue with which he has grappled throughout his reign. “In a nation and in a world which are constantly changing,” he said, “I have continued to think to this day about how the Japanese imperial family can put its traditions to good use in the present age and be an active and inherent part of society, responding to the expectations of the people.” How has he answered that challenge?

In an April 2009 press conference, Emperor Akihito argued that, in comparison with the emperor’s status under the Meiji Constitution “the role of the emperor under the [postwar] Constitution of Japan is more consistent with the emperor’s traditional role in the context of the monarchy’s long history.”

At the same time, Emperor Akihito, with his longtime commitment to an “open imperial family,” has clearly rejected the prewar image of the emperor as a remote figure ensconced within the walls of the Imperial Palace, occupied exclusively with religious and ceremonial duties. As he explained in his recent address, “I have considered that the first and foremost duty of the emperor is to pray for peace and happiness of all the people. At the same time, I also believe that in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts.”

In keeping with this belief, Emperor Akihito has been an open and active emperor. In addition to carrying out his official duties, he has traveled widely, visiting disaster areas and welfare facilities all over the country and actively reaching out to society’s most vulnerable members. As he stressed in his video message, these “travels to various places throughout Japan, in particular, to remote places and islands, are important acts of the emperor as the symbol of the state.” They embody Emperor Akihito’s ongoing effort to establish a meaningful role for the imperial family.

In this context, it becomes clear that the emperor’s concerns about his ability to continue performing his duties pertain mainly to this self-imposed role as an active, open emperor in touch with the people. In conveying such concerns directly to the nation, he has raised issues that go beyond the immediate question of how to respond to the physical limitations and personal wishes of one aging monarch and sparked a much-needed discussion on the role of the emperor in Japanese society today.

Ideological Divide

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded to the emperor’s appeal by moving to prepare ad hoc legislation that would allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate without making any general provision for future abdications. With this goal in mind, he set up an expert panel and asked it to draw up guidelines for such legislation.

The testimony of the scholars and other experts called before the panel revealed a deep ideological divide regarding the proper role of the emperor. On one side are those who seem to prefer the prewar image of a remote, unworldly emperor to the more active and open role advocated and embodied by Emperor Akihito. On the other side are those who applaud the emperor’s efforts and caution strongly against a return to the prewar model.

Most members of the former group are aligned with Japan’s right-wing camp, or at least the conservative end of the political spectrum. The following is a sampling of their remarks to the panel:

“The emperor is the eternal symbol of the people. Even if it becomes difficult for His Majesty to leave the Imperial Palace, it is preferable that he continue in his current position, praying that ‘the people may be forever at peace.’”

“The unity of the people hinges on the continued existence of His Majesty. The performance of official duties is not the only way of fulfilling his symbolic role.”

“The most important thing is that [the emperor] continue praying for the state and the people. One appreciates His Majesty’s desire to perform his duties where people can see him to the very end, but it is quite sufficient that he pray for the state and the people from inside his palace.”

“One is grateful to the emperor merely for being there. He only needs to perform his ritualistic duties. That is all we ask of the emperor.”

Deeper Significance of the Emperor’s Message

By contrast, scholars of a liberal persuasion support Emperor Akihito’s ideal of an active, open imperial family and are sharply critical of the kind of role the emperor played before World War II. The following remarks are illustrative of their position:

“The majority of the people are unlikely to support the idea that the emperor can function as a symbol of the state and national unity merely by existing. A role that answers the expectations of our people and our society is necessary if the imperial institution is to endure.”

“Glorifying the emperor by claiming that he is august merely by virtue of his existence or that he need only pray for the people behind palace walls could actually lead to the kind of deification and political manipulation that occurred in the past.”

The idea that the emperor’s value and meaning consists primarily in his existence per se strikes me as anachronistic and out of touch with popular sentiment. But there is no denying that those embracing conservative views are on closer terms with the prime minister. This probably explains why he has not encouraged extensive public debate on the topic within the government or the Diet. He seems intent to quickly and quietly push through a special law that will allow Emperor Akihito to step down with a minimum of fuss.

But to do so would be to ignore the deeper and broader significance of the emperor’s message to the nation. The vagueness of the Constitution’s designation of the emperor as a symbol has allowed the Japanese people and their political representatives to avoid any concrete debate on the monarchy’s role in contemporary Japanese society. Emperor Akihito has given us a valuable opportunity for such a conversation.

The government plans to submit legislation opening the way for Emperor Akihito’s abdication as early as this spring. Regardless of the prime minister’s intentions, it seems inevitable that this bill will trigger a lively Diet debate on a topic that our politicians have thus far ignored: the significance and role of the Japanese emperor in today’s world.

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