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Mainstream, VOL LV No 30 New Delhi July 15, 2017

Japan’s Emperor Akihito to Abdicate— First in 200 Years

Sunday 16 July 2017

by Rajaram Panda


June 16, 2017 emerged as an important date in the history of Japan’s imperial family. It was on this day that the special one-time law, passed on June 9 allowing the Emperor to abdicate, was promulgated by the National Diet of Japan. All political parties, except the Liberal Party, supported the new law. It would be the first abdication of the present Emperor Akihito in nearly 200 years since that of the 119th Emperor Koukaku in 1817 during the Edo period (1603-1867). It will also be the first abdication not due to the demise of an Emperor since the previous Imperial House Law, enacted in the Meiji era (1868-1912), made the position of Emperor a life-time tenure.

In a video message broadcast on August 8, 2016, the Emperor had indicated his wish to step down and so the passage of the law came fairly quickly in less than one year. After the abdication takes effect, the Heisei era would come to an end and a new era shall begin, the debate for naming of which is already going on in the government. Thereafter, Emperor Akihito (Heisei period, 1989-to the present) will assume the title of “Retired Emperor” or Joukou (in Japanese), while Empress Michiko will become “Retired Empress” or Joukougou (in Japanese).

The related formalities to be completed for the abdication to take effect are long. According to the special exemption law, the date of the abdication shall be decided by the Imperial House Council within three years of the promulgation and specified by a Cabinet order. With the decision having been taken, the govern-ment is expected to convene soon an Imperial House Council to decide the schedule for official duties. These include the Accession Ceremony to Inherit Imperial Regalia (the transfer of the three sacred treasures) and His Majesty’s First Audience Ceremony after the Accession with the heads of the legislature, executive, judiciary, and other representatives of the people. So, following the passing of the special exemption law, discussions on related matters have already started.

The objective of this one-time special exemption law was to prevent the decline of the imperial line, thereby ensuring stability. The significance of this law is that the imperial traditions have continued in Japan without exception for 125 generations and therefore the patrilineal line of imperial succession needed to be ensured.

Patrilineal vs Matrilineal Debate

Certain sections within the Democratic Party opined that the Imperial House Law also should be revised to allow female members of the Imperial Household to maintain their imperial status, and allow for the creation of an imperial family headed by a woman. However, since the existing Imperial House Law stipulates that “imperial succession shall be patrilineal”, creating a female imperial branch will not increase the number of heirs.

But if the Imperial House Law (Koshitsu Tenpan), is revised and heirs of a female imperial branch are permitted to inherit the throne, it would mean accepting matrilineal succession. That would unlikely to happen as the imperial household has no intention of establishing a matrilineal emperor.

Currently, Prince Hisahito, the son of Prince Akishino (the Crown Prince’s younger brother), is the third in line to the throne. This line of succession will change if a matrilineal succession is recognised. In such a situation, a situation will emerge as to who has the more legitimate claim—Prince Hisahito or the daughter of the Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Aiko (who currently has no claim to the throne)—to be in the line of succession.

It could be more problematic too in the matrimonial front to find a marriage partner for an unmarried female who could succeed to the throne in a matrilineal succession. It could be hypothetical question now but this could emerge as a real situation in the future if the matrilineal succession is recognised.

Historical Overview

Before the end of World War II, the imperial household had a chequered history. Before the War, the line of succession was flexible, allowing other imperial branches to be eligible in the line of succession. This policy was abolished after the War as it was feared that the imperial household shall be weakened, though it was criticised at that time because it was seen as dilution of the bloodline. It seems that some former imperial families were separated from the line about 700 years ago.

During the Meiji era (1867-1912), the four houses of Takeda, Kitashirakawa, Asaka and Higashikuni, all former imperial families, had welcomed princesses from Emperor Mutsuhito’s (Meiji era) household. Higashikuni also welcomed princesses from Emperor Hirohito’s household (Showa Period 1926-1989). So, the blood ties remained strong. Since the change in the Imperial Household Law after the War, tens of male descendants from imperial branches had been demoted between the Meiji era and the end of World War II, and from the highest levels of the Edo period nobility. In view of the declining numbers of male members in the imperial lines of succession and if the matrilineal succession is not acceptable, the problem could be eased if the male descendants of the imperial branches who were demoted after the War are inducted to carry out duties as temporary employees of the Imperial Household Agency. Given the reverence attached to the imperial throne, that is unlikely to happen.

The argument to enlarge the ambit of those eligible to the imperial throne from the imperial branches is premised on the hypothetical situation that if a princess were to marry a member of the demoted patrilineal imperial branch and subsequently bear a male heir, the succession to the imperial throne can continue to the next generation. Those who take this position further argue that princesses are facing the problem to find suitable marriage partners and therefore most imperial princesses have married the former nobility, or a commoner. The truism is that marriage is a personal choice and, as stipulated in the Constitution, it is decided by an agreement between the two parties. Therefore, strict adherence to marriage within the royalty or nobility could leave the princesses without being married. So, the issue is complicated.

Issue of Female Succession

According to the existing Imperial House Law, women must leave the imperial family if they marry outside of it. Due to the shortage of male heirs at the moment, rules could be changed to allow women to stay in the palace after they get married. Another possibility is if a female from the imperial family marries from an imperial branch of royalty, it would mean reinstating the imperial branches that were dropped after World War II by order of the occupying Americans.

The Prime Minister is opposed to allow succession to the throne of heirs produced by anyone from the female line of the imperial family, since that could conceivably lead to a female emperor and thus the end of the patrilineal system. The issue of female succession was intensely debated but quietly ended when Prince Hisahito was born 10 years ago. He is the only young heir after his father, Prince Akishino, and therefore third in the line of succession. The other seven unmarried children are all females, and six are in their twenties and thirties. Under the Imperial Law, women are obliged to abandon their imperial status if they marry a commoner. Since the number of male members is decreasing, the issue of female succession may again be debated in the future in a possible new situation.

Engagement of Princess Mako

In the light of the above picture, the choice of Princess Mako to choose Kei Komuro, her former classmate at the International Christian University, to be her soul-mate assumes relevance. Both are 25 years of age. Princess Mako is the oldest of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko’s four grandchildren and eldest daughter of Prince Akishino, the Emperor’s second son, and Princess Kiko. The Imperial Household Agency announced that the informal engagement of Princess Mako and Komuro shall be announced on July 8. The official engagement shall be announced later when a separate betrothal rite, called “nosai no gi” is conducted at a formal ceremony.

The precedent of this series of events was set when an informal announcement of the engagement of Sayako Kuroda, Emperor Akihito’s only daughter, with Yoshiki Kuroda, an employee of the Tokyo metropolitan government, was made in December 2004. Princess Mako’s informal engagement announcement date before the formal engagement ceremony later is as per the precedent already set. Both Princess Mako and her fiancé-to-be, Komuro, shall address the press the same day after the informal engage-ment announcement. The actual marriage is expected sometime in 2018.

There has been a lot of media interest when the news of their impending engagement broke in mid-May 2017, weeks before the legislation aimed at enabling the 83-year-old emperor to abdicate and pass the throne to Crown Prince Naruhito was enacted on June 9. This news again revived interest on addressing the issue of the dwindling size of Japan’s imperial family as princesses cannot become reigning empresses and will have to leave the family upon their marriage to commoners under the current law. For the record: Princess Mako and Komuro met about five years ago through a mutual friend and soon started going out, before Komuro proposed about a year later. After Mako’s engagement, the total number of the imperial family will come down to 18, including the current Emperor Akihito.

Next Step

The next step for the government is to initiate wide-ranging discussions and prepare for the abdication of the current Emperor and how he will live under the new status of Joukou. Since the constitutional designation of the Emperor during the post-War period is the symbol of the nation under democracy, the roles of the reigning Emperor, including official duties, and retired Emperor have to be clearly defined in this unique situation.

The current Emperor shall complete the 30th anniversary of his accession to the throne in 2018, the year tentatively earmarked for the abdication to take effect. Since his accession to the throne in 1989, the Emperor and Empress have undertaken numerous national duties, travelled abroad, repeatedly visited disaster-stricken areas across Japan to express sympathy to victims and flown to World War II battlefields to pray for the War dead. Their active engage-ment in such activities have endeared them to the people. Therefore nearly 80 per cent of the Japanese people, as revealed in a recent opinion survey, supported the Emperor’s wish to step down.

In view of his failing health, the Emperor has already reduced the load of his official duties and therefore the new Emperor shall have little difficulty to discharge his official duties once he is enthroned. Only the roles of the new Emperor and the retired Emperor have to be clearly defined in the new situation. By expressing his wish to abdicate, the Emperor might have offered opportunities to provide the next Emperor with “on-the-job-training” adequate enough to discharge the official duties when he finally abdicates. The new challenge that confronts the government now is to specify in advance in clear terms what acts the new Emperor and his father as Joukou would discharge when the nation will suddenly find dealing with the possible presence of two symbols of the nation.

There is a counter-argument to this narrative. Those who argue against abdication say that the post-abdication scenario could result in destabilising consequences as was the case in the past hundreds of years ago when an Emperor’s post-retired period witnessed confrontation among family members over who should become the new Emperor. Such a fear seems to be unfounded as today’s Emperor is just a symbol of power under a democratic set-up and does not wield real power as was the case years ago. So, judging the present in the historical narrative could be too simplistic. By addressing the nation on television with his wish to step down, the Emperor gave a message of closeness to the people, which resulted in an overwhelming support of his people for his wish. After all, the Emperor is the first monarch enthroned under democracy and therefore his status is distinctly different from his predecessors.

Past Experience

There was also a view that a Regent could have been chosen if the Emperor was incapable of discharging his duties because of either illness or old age. However, past precedents created more problems than solving. For example, when Emperor Taisho ascended the throne in 1912 following his father Emperor Meiji’s death, he stopped carrying out official duties in 1919 and let his son, Crown Prince Hirohito, as the Prince Regent in 1921 when he reached the age 20. When Emperor Taisho died in 1926, Crown Prince Hirohito became the Showa Emperor. The relationship between Emperor Taisho and Crown Prince Hirohito saw many disagreements and therefore it was not a congenial one, something unwelcome for the nation. During his reign, the Showa Emperor refused to name his son, Crown Prince Akihito, the current Emperor, as the Regent even when his health was deteriorating because of old age. This past experience demonstrates that the establishment of a Regent is not appropriate for the stability of the imperial family. It could be more problematic in view of the declining number of successors.

There is yet another angle to the abdication issue. Should it be one-off or permanent? After intense debate, it was decided that it is to be one-off now, leaving the issue of permanency to future generations to determine. But by allowing the current Emperor to step down by passing the special law, a precedent could have been set for possible abdication by future Emperors. That would require again passing a permanent legislation to make that happen. That is not easy. But if it happens ever in future, Japan as a nation could find itself coexisting with a retired Emperor or Joukou, a new Emperor and a new Imperial heir. That scenario is unthinkable in the foreseeable future, however.

Whichever situation emerges in the future, the Emperor as the symbol of the nation shall continue to remain robust as has been all these centuries. The significance of the institution of the Emperor is too sacred for Japan and the Japanese people as it is rooted in the nation’s history and culture. The Tenno may have renounced his semi-god divine status after World War II but for the people of Japan he still is perceived next to God. That is what makes the institution of the Emperor hugely significant for Japan.

Dr Rajaram Panda is the ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of either the ICCR or the Government of India.

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