The politics of abdication in Japan

Will political will match public sentiment in a constitutional conundrum?

Jeff Kingston

Government and governance, Law, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

8 March 2017

Emperor Akihito’s desire to abdicate has divided Japan’s politicians and exposed the many challenges facing the country’s monarchy and political system, Jeff Kingston writes.

On 8 August, 2016 Emperor Akihito, then 83, made a televised speech in which he conveyed his desire to abdicate, citing health problems, flagging strength, and a desire not to inconvenience the nation.

It was a remarkable speech that highlighted what a punishing schedule this octogenarian still maintains—he just visited Vietnam and Thailand—and his strong sense of duty to the Japanese people and the venerable monarchy he represents.

In Article 1 of the Constitution, the Emperor is designated as a symbol of the State and unity of the people, while Article 4 prohibits him from involvement in political matters.

But Akihito came close to crossing that line by rejecting, subtly as he must, the option of a regency—the Crown Prince assuming his duties while he remained Emperor. By drawing attention to the lack of any legal basis for him to abdicate under the current Imperial Household Law (IHL), his implication was that the Diet should act. Trusted surrogates have also made clear His Majesty’s desire that the Diet revise the IHL and establish a permanent legal basis for future abdications.

This political bombshell has divided the Diet on how to respond, with the LDP-led ruling coalition favouring a one-off law allowing Akihito to abdicate as an exceptional case, while the opposition has backed revision of the IHL to establish a permanent system for abdication.

In the wake of the speech, an overwhelming majority of the Japanese public backed the Emperor’s implied preference for a permanent arrangement. There was also an outpouring of sympathy and appreciation for all he has done over the nearly three decades of his reign.

Abdication negotiations, though, have reached a deadlock. The opposition camp remains adamant that the IHL should be revised to establish a system for emperors to abdicate while the LDP favours a one-off law. With a commanding majority in both houses, the LDP-led coalition holds most of the cards. But a January 2017 Mainichi poll found that 65 per cent of respondents favour revision of the IHL while only 22 per cent favour the one-off law limited to Emperor Akihito.

Article 2 of the Constitution stipulates that the Imperial Throne shall be succeeded in accordance with the IHL, while Article 4 of the IHL stipulates, “Upon the demise of the Emperor, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne,” but there is no provision regarding abdication. Considering Article 2 of the Constitution, it appears that revision of the IHL is necessary to make abdication constitutional.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, appointed a panel of advisors that issued a report agreeing with the government’s preference for a law only allowing Akihito to abdicate. The report argued that the Emperor’s desire should play no part because Article 4 of the Constitution enjoins him from influencing national politics. The panel also asserted that it is difficult to establish permanent guidelines regarding abdication or fix an age of retirement.

Both sides claim that priority should be placed on ensuring a stable legal basis for imperial succession and ensure that the government cannot arbitrarily force emperors to step down. The third option suggested by the panel involves amending the IHL to stipulate that a special law should be enacted to allow the Emperor to abdicate that would apply only in this instance. But if the IHL is to be revised along these lines, the opposition asserts it makes more sense to establish a legally stable, permanent system for abdication.

The stakes are high and extend beyond abdication. There is a small and shrinking pool of male heirs, threatening the viability of the monarchy. Between 1989 when Akihito succeeded to the throne and now, the number of male heirs in the Imperial family has dwindled from seven to four.

Nonetheless, the government opposes revision of the IHL because that would open an opportunity to consider other possible revisions conservatives don’t favour, such as female succession. Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) is a powerful rightwing lobby group that seeks to rescind gender equality laws, revive the pre-1945 Imperial system and opposes female succession. A majority of Abe’s cabinet ministers are members of this group as are a majority of LDP Diet members.

The public is open to female succession, but the conservative political elite fears it would undermine the basis for patriarchy, something they view as a pillar of social stability consistent with Japanese traditions and cultural norms. Apparently, they find no inspiration or comfort from the positive examples of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth or the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix.

The government hopes to resolve the abdication issue in this Diet session by submitting a bill by early May and if so, plans for the Emperor to abdicate at the end of 2018 and begin the new reign in 2019. That would mean Akihito’s reign lasting three decades. But there are various factors that could delay this timetable, including a brewing scandal over a sweetheart land deal for an ultraconservative school in Osaka that has become Abe’s biggest crisis since returning to power in 2012.

If the Diet moves to amend the IHL this might involve lengthy negotiations that could make resolution of the abdication issue unlikely this spring. Given the Emperor’s stated wishes and public sentiments, however, the government faces considerable pressure to act with dispatch.

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