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Japan’s Emperor, the Revolutionary

How the constitutional monarch may be able to set the tone for social change in Japan.

Credit: Richard Hopkins www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Emperor Akihito has been respected as Japan’s ceremonial head at a time of peace and economic security.
  • Japan has the world’s oldest demographic, with a quarter of its population over 65 years old.
  • In order to let Akihito step down, the Japanese government will have to revise the Imperial Household law of 1947.
  • Emperor Akihito would welcome a move to promote greater gender equality in his realm.
  • The line of succession will skip Princess Aiko and place the nine-year-old Prince Hisahito in third place to the throne.

The Japanese emperor’s announcement on Monday that he would like to abdicate has led to more questions than answers about the future of the Chrysanthemum throne.

Like Pope Benedict and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the 82-year-old Emperor Akihito said that he wanted to preempt being incapacitated due to ill-health and step down before he dies.

Yet when and how exactly the emperor will step down remains unclear. Moreover, it will challenge social norms about aging, women’s rights, family obligations, and even the meaning of work.

Unlike the tumultuous reign of his father, Emperor Hirohito, before, during, and after World War II, Akihito has been respected as Japan’s ceremonial head at a time of peace and economic security.

His abdication would allow the 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito to head the constitutional monarchy before he too becomes even older. It can actually be seen as a microcosm of a country grappling to take into account the new realities of an aging population.

After all, Japan has the world’s oldest demographic, with a quarter of its population over 65 years old, and that number is expected to reach over 40 percent by 2060.

While people living longer and healthier lives is good news in itself, the emperor’s decision has demonstrated that even with the best healthcare in the world, there is no doubt that old age slows everyone down.

A revision of the imperial law?

Yet, the imperial household is not like any other family in Japan. For one, the Japanese calendar is based on the reign of the emperor. For instance, 2016 is year 28 of Akihito’s rule, known as Heisei.

His father Hirohito’s reign of the Showa period lasted for 64 years, until 1989. So it is not surprising that there is fervent opposition from conservative groups that object to the changes the abdication would bring.

More importantly, in order to let Akihito step down, the Japanese government will have to revise the Imperial Household law of 1947, which stipulates that the dynastic throne passes on to the heir only after the death of the emperor.

There is has yet been no precedence in revising the imperial law, but this will certainly not be the first time that the rules have bound Japan’s royals.

In 2001, following the birth of Crown Prince Naruhito’s daughter Aiko, there was a serious attempt to consider revising the law so that a woman could inherit the throne. To date, Aiko remains the only child of Naruhito and his wife, the Harvard-educated former diplomat Crown Princess Masako.

However, once Naruhito’s younger brother Prince Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko, had a son in 2006, the need to revise the law was averted.

The gender equality aspect

The line of succession as it stands now will skip Princess Aiko and two other older girls, and instead will place the nine-year-old Prince Hisahito in third place to the throne.

That compares sharply to the British line of succession. Unlike her predecessors, when Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, was pregnant with her first child, she did not have to fret about having a boy.

Months before she gave birth in 2013, changes were made to the Succession of the Crown Act which overhauled tradition and put an end to male preference primogeniture.

Given that she gave birth to a boy, there was no immediate need to make that change. But it was one of the clearest messages yet to declare that women and men were equal under the law.

It is unlikely that primogeniture will be debated as part and parcel of the broader question of succession in Japan. That is a pity, though, because it may well be that Emperor Akihito himself would welcome a move to promote greater gender equality in his realm.

A revolutionary himself

After all, despite being bound by tradition as the head of one of the world’s oldest monarchies, he has not shied away from pushing the envelope of rules.

He defied the etiquette of nobility and married a commoner (albeit an extremely wealthy, well-connected industrialist), having fallen in love with her at an exclusive Tokyo tennis club.

More recently, he and Empress Michiko have not shied away from making overtures to countries that have suffered under Japanese occupation during World War II, and they have made a point of reaching out to war victims of other nations.

They have, in short, been a steady source of decency and compassion going beyond borders, even when it seems at times to directly challenge the conservatism of the current administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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About Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is the senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [Washington, D.C, United States]

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