On Aug. 8, Japan’s Emperor Akihito signaled again that he would like to step down from the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. Yet his veiled speech held a larger message for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: that he should proceed carefully before revising Japan’s postwar constitution.
In keeping with his apolitical role, the 82-year-old Akihito did not say straight out he wished to abdicate. Existing laws have no provision for a living emperor to give up his throne. Instead, he spoke of “a decline in my fitness level because of my advancing age.”
Yet in his nearly three decades as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” Akihito has always made his views on Japan’s proper course quietly clear. His marriage to a commoner, now the Empress Michiko, was seen as an affirmation of equality among Japanese and of the idea that marriage involves mutual consent — both values enshrined in Japan’s 1947 constitution. His early championing of the Paralympics brought Japan’s attention to the cause of the disabled. His expressions of remorse for the harm caused by Japan during World War II and his steadfast wishes for peace have earned global goodwill.
Ironically, those most disturbed by Akihito’s messages have been Japan’s conservatives, some of whom long for the days when the emperor was venerated as a divine being. Unlike members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, for instance, Akihito has steadfastly refused to visit Yasukuni Shrine for Japan’s war dead, maintaining the royal boycott his father started after 14 Class A war criminals were interred there in 1978. Die-hard nationalists also fumed when the emperor acknowledged the rich historical ties between Korea and Japan. They felt betrayed when he urged the Japanese people to “study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931.” That was considered a rebuke to the argument that Japan’s initial incursions into China were an act of self-defense.
Now Akihito has cast a shadow over the prime minister’s cherished plan to change Japan’s constitution, which is currently based largely on a blueprint created by U.S. occupation officials. The emperor’s speech, coming shortly after Abe’s LDP won the votes necessary to pass a revision, has been interpreted as a coded pushback, and not just to Abe’s quest to revise Article 9, under which Japan renounced war and the creation or use of military forces.
Akihito referred many times, for instance, to his symbolic role, which the LDP’s plan would change — to make the emperor again the “head of state” and exempt him from having to uphold the constitution. The LDP draft constitution deletes an article on the universality of human rights; specifies that the exercise of rights shall “not infringe the public interest and public order”; and invokes citizens’ responsibilities and duties, including respect for the flag and the national anthem. (At a garden party in 2004, the emperor famously scolded a bureaucrat for arguing that teachers should stand facing the flag and sing the national anthem.) The draft constitution also grants the government more powers in emergencies and dabbles in social engineering by extolling family values. More fundamentally, the LDP’s proposed changes would make it easier to revise the constitution in the future.
The country’s old constitution should hardly be frozen in amber. So much has changed since Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in 1949, envisioned Japan as the “Switzerland of the Pacific.” And notwithstanding conservative fears, there’s no good reason why Japan couldn’t change its Imperial Household Law to enable the emperor to abdicate. But Akihito’s pronouncements, last week and over the years, are a reminder of the Japanese people’s understandable ambivalence toward revising the constitution, and of the need for a robust and unfettered debate before any change is made.