Japan’s emperor suggests he would like to abdicate

Mari Yamaguchi
Associated Press

Tokyo — Japan’s emperor expressed concern Monday about fulfilling his duties as he ages, in a public address that was remarkable for its rarity and its suggestion that he would like to abdicate.

“Fortunately I am now in good health. However, when I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become more difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state,” Akihito, 82, said in the 10-minute recorded speech broadcast on national television.

Japan’s post-World War II constitution restricts what the emperor can say as a symbolic monarch with no political power. Akihito repeatedly said he is aware of the constraints, and as expected, avoided explicit mention of abdication, which could have violated those restrictions.

The speech was seen in part as an attempt to explain to the public why he might want to abdicate, and presumably win public understanding when the time comes. Sources leaked the possibility to Japanese media almost four weeks ago, which set the stage for Monday’s address.

Abdication isn’t expected to happen soon, and would require parliament to approve a change in the law.

It was only the second time that Akihito has spoken directly to the Japanese people over television. In March 2011 he urged people to work hand-in-hand to help the victims of a massive earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he took Akihito’s comments Monday seriously.

“I think we have to thoroughly think what we can do to accommodate his concerns, taking into consideration the emperor’s age and the current burden of official duties,” Abe said.

Japanese media reports said the government may consider a legal change allowing Akihito’s abdication that would not be applicable to his successors.

Current law is largely inherited from a 19th-century constitution that banned abdication as a potential risk to political stability.

While much of the discussion has centered on Akihito’s age and health, he obliquely introduced at the end of his address another possible argument for abdication: a smoother succession process.

Akihito raised concern about the impact on society when an emperor falls sick but remains in power, which experts said was an apparent reference to his father, Hirohito, who died in 1989 after a protracted illness.

Palace doctors regularly announced Hirohito’s declining health condition, and the public responded by canceling festivals and other events. Some even postponed weddings.

“The emperor was so distressed by the fact (his father’s death) had slowed down social activities that he has been thinking what can be done to make a transition smoother in the future,” Isao Tokoro, a Kyoto Sangyo University expert on the imperial family, said on public broadcaster NHK.

Akihito said the more than yearlong period of mourning and funeral events after an emperor’s death also places a heavy strain on those involved, in particular the imperial family.

“It occurs to me from time to time to wonder whether it is possible to prevent such a situation,” he concluded, perhaps as strongly as he could suggest he would like to see a smoother transition.

Akihito explained at length how much effort and thought he has put into his work, traveling across the country to deepen his understanding of the people.

A small number of the emperor’s duties have been transferred to Crown Prince Naruhito, his successor, but Akihito said that can’t keep happening.

“I think it is not possible to continue reducing perpetually the emperor’s acts in matters of state and his duties as the symbol of the state,” he said.

Tokoro said Akihito’s message signaled his thoughts about the role of the emperor in an aging society.

“I believe he is mostly talking about himself, but I think he is concerned about his successors down the road,” Tokoro said.