In a rare public address on Monday, Japanese Emperor Akihito hinted at his desire to step down from the throne, though he carefully skirted clear language – such as the word "abdication" – that might thrust his role as a national symbol into the realm of politics.
"When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, 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," Emperor Akihito said in a prerecorded video. The octogenarian emperor would become the first in modern Japan to abdicate. But first, the national legislature would have to make a legal change to allow it. At present, under the Imperial House Law of 1947, the emperor is required to serve until death.
"Given the age of the Emperor and the burden of his duties, I believe we need to think what grievance it causes him and what we can do," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe commented afterward, as The Japan Times reported.
Amending the law to allowing Akihito to step down is widely supported by the Japanese people. But some experts predict that opening up that debate in Parliament might set the stage for other imperial changes that would receive much more pushback, such as the opening up the throne to women – a proposal strongly opposed by some rightwing politicians. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been pushing to include more women in the workforce, proposals intended to create a society in which "all women can shine," in the words of Mr. Abe. But the emperorship is likely too big a stretch, say some observers.
"Someone's going to stand up and say, Mr. Prime Minister, one of your most burning policies, one of your most significant initiatives, is what you're terming making a society where women can shine. ... So, if you believe in making a society where women can shine, why can’t women sit on the throne? Why can’t we also change the law to allow for female tenno [emperor]?" Kenneth Ruoff, the director of Portland State University's Center for Japanese Studies, tells The Christian Science Monitor.
Japanese records claim the imperial line, passed down through the male bloodline, has dated back roughly 1500 years. During the 19th century Meiji era, the emperor's historic role as head of the Shinto religion was emphasized to a point where the ruler was often regarded as divine – a claim Akihito's father, posthumously referred to as Emperor Showa, renounced at the end of World War II. None has abdicated the throne since Emperor Kokaku, in 1817.
In his Monday address, Akihito said that appointing a regent, rather than handing over power entirely, would not be sufficient. After his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, next in line for the throne is his brother, Prince Akishino, and then Akishino's nine-year-old son, Hisahito. Natuhito and his wife, Crown Princess Masako, are parents to one child, Princess Aiko.
Before Hisahito's birth in 2006, fears that neither of the current emperor's sons would produce a male heir prompted serious mobilization around changing the policy of succession to include women. In 2005, a government panel even recommended revising the law to allow a female heir, an idea supported by about three-fourths of Japanese citizens. But the issue was quickly dropped when Hisahito, the Crown Prince's nephew, was born.
"The readiness of many people to see the new plan shelved or postponed suggests that the idea of equality has only shallow roots here: A woman is still second-best, a last resort," The Japan Times' editorial board wrote at the time.
Despite some pushes to bring working women into the mainstream, Japan's has lagged behind most other developed countries in gender parity, by many measures. Female legislators make up less than 10 percent of the Diet's lower house, and about 16 percent of the upper, for example. The gap is also reflected in Japan's low scoring on the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index, where the country ranked 101 out of 145 countries in 2015.
"Most Japanese people support allowing the Emperor to abdicate and allowing females to be named emperor, but it is not a big enough issue to oust the right-wing politicians who bristle at any hint of revision," Alex Bates, an associate professor of Japanese language and literature at Dickinson College, tells the Monitor. Between 77 percent and 90 percent of Japanese poll respondents currently support changing the system to allow the emperor to abdicate, according to The Washington Post.
Abe has pushed to include more women in the workforce: about two-thirds of Japanese women work today, but many leave their jobs after the birth of their first child, and say there is little support for working mothers. Abe's "womenomics" initiatives include promising that one-third of government leadership positions will be held by women by 2020, and that 55 percent of mothers will return to work, with measures such as improved day care access.
While Japan has had eight empresses throughout history, no woman has reigned in Japan in more than 200 years – roughly the same amount of time since an emperor last abdicated the throne, and before emperors took on their current role as a such a significant national figurehead.
"What's now being defended as traditional is a modern tradition that dates back to the 1860s," says Andrew Gordon, a history professor at Harvard University. But that doesn't make the emperor any less important, Dr. Gordon says. "He provides legitimacy to the political order of the postwar period and support and sympathy of people's efforts and struggles," as when Akihito made a national address after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster – only the second imperial broadcast in Japan's history.
A discussion of abdication will not necessarily open the door for female heirs, Professor Gordon says, noting that the issue "is not directly related, and the question of opening up the possibility of abdication is complicated enough." As long as a line of male heirs is available, he says it's unlikely the proposal to introduce women into succession will be seriously considered, regardless of what progress for gender equality is made in the meantime.
"The prime minister and his supporters have deeply conflicted and self-contradictory views about this whole issue of empowering women," Gordon says. "They want women to work more for the sake of the nation, not necessarily for their own self-fulfillment. There's a strong commitment to some division of gender responsibilities in the family that is held by many in [Abe's] party" and likely the Prime Minister himself, he says.
Despite the prime minister's promise for a more female-friendly workforce, "there's all these additional societal factors that make it tricky for Abe to make as much progress in this area," says Dr. Ruoff. "For white collar, middle class employees, companies have a tendency to insist that you’re in the office for 15 hours, even when you’re doing eight hours of work. Women look at this situation and wonder how they can look after their children if they take a job that's befitting their background and education."
In December, Japan's Supreme Court upheld a law requiring married couples to have the same last name, a practice presiding Justice Itsuro Terada defended as “deeply rooted in our society,” although he acknowledged it could disadvantage women professionally – a disappointing ruling for many feminists.
Yet Ruoff predicts it's only a matter of time before the discussion about female emperors resurfaces.
"History show that you cannot continue an all-male line without two mechanisms that Japan no longer has," he says. "One is a concubine system," which he calls "out of the question."
"The other thing they like is they have almost no collateral families eligible to provide an heir. And sooner or later, without these mechanisms, you do not get a male heir."