These pictures of Japanese Emperor Akihito (b. 1933) appeared in the Tuesday, August 9, 2016 Japan Times newspaper. Apparently the previous day, Monday 8th, a pre-recorded 10-minute message from the Emperor to the nation was broadcast. I didn’t know about it until I read the August 9th morning newspaper. For the first time the Emperor publically declared and confirmed a story that surfaced in July - his desire to abdicate the throne so that he can retire. While declaring that he is still in good health, the 82-year-old monarch expressed reservations about declining energy preventing him from fulfilling his role as the “symbol of the state” with his “whole being,” as he is accustomed to. Telephone surveys of Japanese adults indicate widespread, majority support of the popular emperor’s desire to retire. Predictably, though, conservatives reject it on the grounds that, 1) the Imperial Household Law does not allow an emperor to abdicate; 2) abdication would undermine the Imperial system; and, 3) abdication would destabilize the system of male primogeniture.
About the first point I say, “So what?” And, about the second and third points I say, “That’s the point.”
In 2005, due to a troubling paucity of males in the Imperial family, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi contemplated enacting a law to abolish male primogeniture and allow Imperial succession to pass to the eldest child regardless of sex. But those efforts - criticized by right-wing conservatives for the same reasons I just mentioned, were abandoned after the Emperor’s younger son, Prince Akishinomiya (Fumihito, Prince Akishino), had a son, Prince Hisahito in 2006 who is now third in line for the Chrysanthemum Throne. There is speculation of conspiracy in the Imperial Household to produce a male heir, after the Crown Prince, Naruhito and his wife, Masako Owada, produced only a single daughter, Princess Aiko (b. 2001).
At 56 years of age Crown Prince Naruhito is about the same age as his father was when he ascended the throne in the winter of 1989, with the death of the infamous Emperor Hirohito. Naruhito is well practiced in the Imperial system and has for years slowly been assuming more of his father’s duties. Little problem there. His wife, Princess Masako, may be a problem, however. After suffering a mental health crisis in the early 2000s due to the stress of the Imperial Household Agency she has only rarely been seen in public and participates only in a handful of Crown Princess duties. A bit unusual but refreshing for a Crown Prince, in the past twenty years her husband has not shied away from periodic criticism the Imperial Household Agency, which he blames for causing his wife’s problems.
Finally, I know from personal experience that Japanese are practiced and prone to withhold information. In addition, with a benign intent to cultivate harmony, when there is doubt they often confirm false information if they think the false information is what a person wants to hear. Again, I know it from experience. So perhaps the government of Prime Minister Abe might move much more quickly on the abdication issue than I expect because maybe the Old Man’s health is worse than is being revealed. If that turns out to be the case then (the Japanese being how they are) it might be folly to express surprise.