Koji Sasahara/AP
People watch a screen showing Japanese Emperor Akihito delivering a speech in Tokyo on Aug. 8. The Japanese emperor, in a rare address to the public, signaled his apparent wish to abdicate by expressing concern about his ability to carry out his duties fully.

No longer divine, Japanese emperor wins people's hearts with his humanity

Until 1945, Japanese thought their emperor was remote, and descended from gods. Emperor Akihito has changed the monarchy's image, and his suggestion this week that he might like to abdicate was met sympathetically. 

On Monday, Kumiko Ono, a Japanese language teacher in Oita, Kyushu, listened as Emperor Akihito spoke to his people in a TV address for only the second time. She appreciated what she heard. 

"I really like the current emperor. He has talked about a lot of the bad things that happened in the war, such as in Okinawa and the Philippines," she says. "He's very close to the people, like a regular person." 

It's a remarkable assessment in a country whose people, until the end of World War II, had never even heard the voice of their emperor, who was considered to be divine.

But Akihito, the 125th ruler to sit on Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne in a continuous dynasty that dates back more than 2,600 years, has overseen a significant transformation of an institution that, while still very removed from daily life, has nonetheless become more familiar – and human – to many Japanese. And this week, the 82-year-old monarch spoke – however indirectly – to an issue many average Japanese in his rapidly aging society could understand: retirement. 

Akihito's first televised speech took place in March 2011, when his nation was reeling from the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. This week's topic was equally sensitive for very different reasons. 

The issue of abdication, a phrase the emperor steadfastly avoided but clearly alluded to in his message, is a thorny one. The 1947 Imperial Household Law makes no provision for a monarch to step down before death. Conservative nationalists are concerned that a change in the law to allow abdication could provide an opportunity to challenge the current statutes forbidding the ascension of a female heir.   

The emperor, who questioned how long he will remain fit to serve, remains hugely popular in Japan, including among much of the political left. The Japanese imperial family is not as visible or active as its European counterparts, though it does perform some ceremonial duties such as receiving visiting dignitaries. And the emperor and empress won kudos for their visits to evacuation centers after the 2011 disasters, sitting and chatting with survivors in a manner that would have been unthinkable with previous generations of monarchs. 

Most ordinary Japanese also appreciate Akihito's willingness to address taboos: His regular praise of the pacifist Constitution, apologies for imperial wartime aggression, refusal to visit Yasukuni Shrine (where 14 Class A war criminals from World War II are memorialized), and references to the Korean ancestry of his family are seen as gentle rebukes to ultranationalists who idolize the Chrysanthemum Throne. 

Even the Japanese Communist Party, which holds 36 seats across the two houses of parliament, has softened its sharply anti-imperial stance. In January, for the first time since 1947, JCP lawmakers attended the opening session of parliament attended by the emperor. Communist leader Kazuo Shii said this was to “avoid an unnecessary misunderstanding that the JCP was boycotting the session as a sign of its opposition to the imperial system.” 

Support of the people 

Ms. Ono, along with more than 80 percent of people polled in Japan before the emperor's speech, believes he should be allowed to abdicate.

"He's over 80 years old now and if he was an ordinary person, he'd be taking it easy and enjoying his life," she says. "It would be better if he doesn't have to stay on until he gets frail." 

Toyonori Sugita, owner of a metalworking business in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, also says the emperor should be allowed to choose his own fate. 

"The emperor's speech was like a jab in the direction of the government. I think the government will have to change the law. There is no reason for them to say no," he says. 

But that argument may not sit well with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose power base lies among conservatives. Like them, he may be concerned over opening the door to female succession, something Mr. Abe is thought to privately oppose. Under the current rules, because Crown Prince Naruhito's only child is a daughter, after his reign, his nephew Prince Hisahito would assume the throne. 

To Mr. Sugita, such opposition doesn't make sense, especially given Japan's history.

"Abe is perhaps worried that if the law is changed then the issue of female succession will arise, too," he says. "Maybe it's a good chance to change that. It would be no problem to allow a woman to take the throne. The imperial family are all said to be descended from Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and there were lots of empresses in ancient Japan." 

There have been eight female occupants of the throne, the last being Empress Go-Sakuramachi, who ruled from 1762 to 1771. (Shortly after her reign came that of Emperor Kokaku, who in 1817 was the last emperor to abdicate.) The policy of male-only emperors was established in the 1889 Meiji Constitution, designed, ironically, to modernize Japan. 

"Japanese women are more active in society recently, like [Yuriko] Koike becoming the first [female] governor of Tokyo, so it should be OK for there to be an empress," says Tetsuya Kataoka, a man in his 40s who works as a driver in Tokyo. 

Ono, the teacher, believes female succession will be the true gauge of whether Japan had changed. For now, however, it "won't happen in Japan," she says. 

"Women still aren't allowed on the sumo doyo [ring] or on the ground at the Koshien high school baseball tournament." (The presence of women on the sumo ring defiles it, according to the customs of the ancient sport. Meanwhile, a female high school student from Ono's prefecture who was helping out with practice before a Koshien game was ordered off the field this month on safety grounds, sparking a debate about the tournament's rules that ban girls from competing.)

The male-only doctrine was reinforced by laws passed under the US occupation force. Those protected Emperor Hirohito, father of the current monarch, as a way of uniting the devastated nation under the emperor as symbol of Japan. The majority of the other Allied nations wanted Hirohito to be tried as a war criminal. 

While the emperor's status a symbol is one that still resonates today, most Japanese find it difficult to define. "I think the most important role is religious, as the head of Shinto [Japan's native religion], though people don't think he's the descendant of a god," says Sugita. "The imperial family doesn't have much of a meaning beyond a kind of symbol and decoration, but they are untouchable."

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