The Japanese royal family is the world’s oldest monarchy and it has been argued by some that it has been unbroken for 2,000 years since Emperor Jimmu. The status of the Emperor was transformed from the semi-divine head of the state Shinto religion to a peace-loving secular Emperor without executive political power after the Second World War.
The announced possibility of Japanese Emperor Akihito’s abdication has become a much-discussed issue in Japan. He cited his age and state of health as the reasons for his not being able to continue with his royal duties. When the Emperor announced his intention, the Japanese nation was surprised by its abruptness. It triggered off widespread speculation from the possibility of establishing a regency, to political differences with the administration.
The need for caution in moving forward is understandable. The Emperor cannot be seen as unilaterally making that decision as it is a political decision that has to be deliberated in parliament. Article Four of the Japanese constitution separates the Emperor from executive power. The parliament also has to introduce a special law for this purpose. In other words, as Japan is a liberal democracy, due process, the rule of law, and procedural steps have to be followed.
Currently, succession is only possible after the death of the reigning emperor under the Imperial House Law. The last Emperor who abdicated was Emperor Kokaku in 1817. Abdication was disallowed in the late 19th century, a feature that is also found in the 1947 postwar constitution. Abdications were avoided in order not to run into political instability caused by such events. If the parliamentary motion for Emperor Akihito to abdicate is passed through a special measures law related to the Imperial House Law, then it would mark exactly 200 years since the last abdication.
When the intention was first announced, it was met with mostly positive understanding from members of the public. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appealed to all stakeholders to approach the issue in a calm manner. To that effect, the Abe administration has set up an expert panel; one that is in charge of “reducing the Emperor’s official duties.” The name hints that such moves have to be incremental and gradualist. According to Japanese domestic media chatter, many members within the panel are said to be politically affiliated with the Abe government, and have strong economic, trade, and commerce experience. The head of this panel is Takashi Imai, honorary chairperson of the Japanese Business Federation, the most powerful trade federation in Japan.
Next in line in terms of succession is Crown Prince Naruhito, followed by his younger brother Prince Akishino, and then Akishino’s son Prince Hisahito.
When he was young, Emperor Akihito was tutored by a Philadelphia-born Quaker woman, Elizabeth Gray Vining, who was a writer of children’s books. Vining was the first foreigner permitted to live within the imperial family grounds. She was to have a lasting influence on the young crown prince, as Akihito, in keeping with imperial custom, was raised apart from his parents. Vining introduced Gandhi to Akihito as material to read. A peace advocate, she also protested against the Vietnam War during the flower power movement and was even arrested. The ideas of Quakerism and Gandhian non-violence may have contributed to the ideas of pacifism and peace when Akihito became Emperor. Vining passed away in 1999, 10 years after Akihito ascended the throne.
Akihito, imbued with this liberal education, went on to espouse liberal values in his own life. He married a commoner, Princess Michiko, which was an almost revolutionary decision. Further breaking tradition, the imperial couple went on to raise their children by themselves.
The legacy of Emperor Akihito is a pacifist Japan which he personally advocated for, and the maintenance after the war of a peaceful orientation for the Japanese nation. He has the respect of the Japanese people who see him as being able to stay above the political fray. Emperor Akihito has also been credited with expressing his desires for Japanese pacifism internationally, earning positive feelings from non-Japanese.