What Is the Role of the Emperor in Modern Japan?

While the role is ceremonial, abdication could mean a political battle

Emperor Akihito
Emperor Akihito in 2014 William Ng via Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s Emperor Akihito made a rare video address earlier today, hinting that he is ready to step down from the role. While abdication isn’t uncommon for royal leaders around the world, the question of whether the 82 year old will be able to give up his title and pass it to his son while Akihito is still alive raises questions about the significance of the emperor and his current role in modern Japan.

The history of Imperial Japan stretches back to 660 B.C., when Akihito’s ancestor Jimmu became the country’s first emperor. The son of Emperor Hirohito, who led Japan during World War II, Akihito is the only modern monarch who holds the title of emperor, Will Ripley and Joshua Berlinger report for CNN. But while previous emperors were considered living gods and descendants of the Shinto deity Amaterasu, since World War II the emperor’s role has been mostly ceremonial. According to the Japanese constitution drafted by the United States and adopted in 1947, the emperor is considered "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people," while the actual governance of the country is left to the democratically elected parliament. But while Akihito's father was a controversial figure, given his role in World War II, his son has worked to reshape the image of the emperor during his reign.

“[Akihito] was the first postwar emperor to embrace the [pacifist] constitution and his role as a symbol of national unity,” Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, tells Reuters. “He cares a great deal about war issues and reconciliation [with Asian countries].”

While Akihito’s role is ceremonial, the laws that govern the position are very strict. According to the postwar constitution, only men can serve as emperor, and they must serve until death. That has caused some conflict in the question of succession as Crown Prince Naruhito, Akihito’s 56-year-old son, has no male heirs. In recent years, these rules have been hotly debated by Japanese politicians, with those on the right wing arguing that should the emperor become incapacitated, the crown prince could just act as regent. With Aikihito indicating that he wants to step down, the political scuffle over whether to change these laws could reignite, Julie Makinen reports for the Los Angeles Times.

“Conservatives like [prime minister Shinzo Abe] in the Diet are not keen to focus on revising the Imperial Household Law. When you open up that Pandora’s Box … clearly the issue of female succession will emerge and that’s anathema to Abe and other conservatives, even though it’s an issue where the public seems to be in favor,” Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, tells Makinen.

Akihito has often posed something of a dilemma for conservative politicians like Abe, says Kingston. In particular, Akihito has worked to take responsibility for Japan’s actions during World War II, while some have criticized Abe for glorifying the war—a tricky topic in Japan’s current pacifist society, Makinen reports. Even if Abe’s government does reform the law to let Akihito step down, it could still take years for the changes to take effect.

If and when Naruhito becomes the emperor, the position likely will undergo more upheaval.

“[Naruhito and his wife Masako] are more intellectual types and could be more dangerous to stubborn conservative right-wingers,” Washington State University professor Noriko Kawamura tells Makinen.

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