A few days after Prime Minister Abe's Liberal Democratic Party won a two-thirds majority of both houses of legislation, on Wednesday, Emperor Akihito told his aides he would like to step down from the throne before he becomes “too frail to carry out his duties,” according to NHK, Japan's public broadcasting organization.
The 82-year-old emperor ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989 after the death of his father, often referred to as Hirohito, who held the role for more than six decades, including the country's pre-war expansion, World War II, and its subsequent defeat and rebuilding.
Although voluntarily abdicating the throne during the emperor's lifetime was once common, as NHK's report notes, Akihito would become the first to do so since Emperor Kokaku, in 1817.
The emperor's stepping down would not shake up Japanese politics; he would be succeeded by his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito. The mention of now-rare abdication has sent Japan's parliament scrambling, however, according to Ken Ruoff, director of Portland State University's Center for Japanese Studies. Abdication is unprecedented under the Imperial Household Law (IHL), instituted in 1947, which governs the line of succession.
The revered emperor, who has written several scientific papers, could be pushing the National Diet to “fix something quirky and odd” about the IHL, Professor Ruoff tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. In an age where people live longer than ever, an emperor should be able to give up his "exhausting position," Ruoff says. In May, the Imperial Household Agency said they would cut back some of the emperor’s official duties, according to The Japan Times.
A simple majority rule is all an amendment to the IHL would require, but this announcement is “the beginning of a long process,” Ruoff speculated. Any potential debate would come at a busy time, as the Liberal Democratic Party's win of a "super majority" has opened the door for long-contested constitutional reforms, primarily to Article Nine, which renounces Japan's right to wage war.
The emperor’s duties are ceremonial, not political: to symbolize Japan and the unity of its people, according to the constitution.
“It’s not an economic issue but the Emperor is very widely respected,” Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co. in Tokyo, told Bloomberg TV. “In Japan the notion of the Emperor as a symbol of the state is very important. From an economic point of view, it’s very important for social cohesion.”
During the 19th-century Meiji era, the emperor's role became tightly connected to Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, with many citizens revering the ruler as though he were divine. After the country's defeat in World War II, under pressure from occupying Allied forces, Hirohito made a speech denying "the false conception that the Emperor is divine."
Amending succession laws has not been easy in the past. A bill that proposed allowing women to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne was fiercely debated before the Crown Prince or his brothers had given birth to any sons. In 2006, however, Prince Akishino, brother to the current Crown Prince, had his and his wife's first son, Hisahito, now third in line to the throne.
More recently, previous prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, announced plans in 2011 to amend the IHL to allow female members to remain in the royal family, even if they marry commoners, in order to stabilize the family's size. Without revising the law, some argued, the imperial family's range of activities would have to narrow.
At the time, Abe responded that parliament should not rush in deciding the matter.
“There lies a danger that basic principles that have supported the Imperial household’s long history and tradition through the male lineage may collapse,” Abe warned.
A government source told Kyodo News at the time that the revision to include more women did "not appear to be a pressing task."