EMPEROR Akihito, who has spent nearly three decades on Japan’s throne, will step down on April 30, 2019 – the first abdication by a Japanese monarch in about two centuries. The Yomiuri Shimbun speaks to modern Japanese history specialist, Kobe College Associate Professor Hideya Kawanishi, about issues related to the abdication of the Emperor. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: The Emperor is set to abdicate on April 30, 2019. What issues remain?
A: In his message, the Emperor expressed his desire to abdicate and called on the people to reflect on how to ensure a stable imperial succession. If we intend to answer this call, implementing abdication alone will leave things half done. Amid a dwindling and ageing imperial family, the problem of imperial succession will not wait.
Going forward, we will need to debate whether to permit female emperors. When Crown Prince Naruhito is enthroned in May 2019, there will be only three male members of the imperial family eligible for imperial succession – Prince Akishino, Prince and Princess Akishino’s eldest son Hisahito and Emperor Akihito’s younger brother Prince Hitachi. Among the grandchildren of the Emperor, there is only Prince Hisahito.
The symbolic emperor system can be said to be a mirror that reflects the times. In an age when progress has been made in equality of the sexes, there would be nothing unusual about a female emperor. Rather, it fits with the necessities of the times. For women who marry into the imperial family, it would reduce the psychological pressure of the need to produce a male heir. The possibility of a female-line emperor is also worthy of consideration.
With regard to a female-line emperor, there is a deeply rooted conservative argument that it would end the tradition of male-line succession.
To preserve imperial succession through the male line, there is also the idea of restoring membership in the imperial family to the men along the male line from the imperial family, who lost their imperial status after the end of World War II, but it may be difficult to gain public support for this.
Today, the people’s respect for the imperial family is not due to their pedigree, but their deeds and deportment. It is important that they are raised from an early age to be able to conduct themselves befittingly.
If they were to try to continue the male line by having a man in the male line of the old imperial family marry a woman from the current imperial family, contrary to expectations, they may lose support for the emperor system.
Are the emperor’s official duties also a matter for consideration?
First of all, we must consider what the symbolic Emperor means to the people. The Emperor’s official duties established in the Constitution are affairs of state, such as convocation of the Diet and receiving foreign ambassadors.
While the official functions (see below) of the emperor only continue to increase, there has been no discussion by a panel of experts as to how to define their scope.
Might it not be best to refrain from demands that would impose an excessive burden on the Emperor, such as visits to disaster areas? If the imperial family were to perform official duties in the Emperor’s stead, it would also bring up discussion of establishing female imperial branches (women from the imperial family who would be able to remain in the imperial family after marriage).
In November this year, Prince and Princess Akishino’s eldest daughter Princess Mako will marry and lose her membership in the imperial family. Action must be swiftly taken.
What form will the new symbolic emperor take?
The crown prince has made international water issues his life’s work, and Princess Masako comes from a diplomatic background. Perhaps their global perspective will be their defining feature.
While we must not increase their burdens, what sort of official functions do the people desire and what is the imperial family capable of doing? We will need to find out through a process of back-and-forth between the two.
These are the functions performed by the Emperor in his official capacity based on his status as a symbol, aside from the affairs of state enumerated in the Constitution, such as the promulgation of laws and convocation of the Diet.
Specifically, they include official visits to foreign countries, memorial services for those who died in wars, visiting disaster areas, receiving the public’s New Year greetings and attending the National Sports Festival. — The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network