No Ordinary Retirement - The Abdication of Emperor Akihito

No Ordinary Retirement - The Abdication of<b>&nbsp;</b>Emperor Akihito
12 January 2017 Gary Luscombe News & Events

The Japanese government just announced that it might after all be possible for Emperor Akihito (明仁天皇) to abdicate, but not until the end of December. The Emperor is 83 years old; following his heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, he is not in the best of health. So why is it proving so challenging to allow him to see out his final years in retirement?

Earlier in 2016, Emperor Akihito hinted that he would like to abdicate by stating in a public address that he was getting too old and frail to carry out all of his duties. The term "hinted at" because the Japanese constitution forbids the Japanese Imperial Family from making any political statements or taking any political sides and therefore, the Imperial family cannot come to this decision on their own.

Yong Emperor Akihito and Wife Michiko. Getty images

While that in itself is not unusual for countries that have a ceremonial, but otherwise powerless, royal family, the issue in Japan is that any opinion, request or decision that the Emperor might take can be considered political and therefore, he is not really entitled to any of these freedoms without the permission of the Imperial Household Agency and the Japanese Government.

One could argue that this state of affairs began way back in the 12th Century during the Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代). It was during this time that the first Bakufu (幕府) or Shogunate was established by Minamoto-no-Yoritomo (源 頼朝) following his defeat of the Taira Clan (平氏) during the Genpei War (源平合戦). Yoritomo assumed power and formed his own military government while the Emperor was reduced to little more than a figurehead (although still revered as a descendant of the Gods). The Minamoto were usurped by the Hōjō Clan (北条氏) shortly after the death of Yoritomo and remained in control of the government for the next 200 years.

During the Nanbokuchō-jidai (南北朝時代) or Northern and Southern Courts period in the 14th Century, Emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇) attempted to bring power back under the Imperial palace and restore ways as they were during the Heian Period (平安時代), from the 8th to the 12th Century, which is when the Imperial court was at its zenith. He ultimately failed, and this gave rise to the Ashikaga Shogunate (足利幕府) who themselves were supplanted by the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府) during the Sengoku-jidai (戦国時代) or Warring States Period. While the Tokugawa Shogunate was in power, Emperors were required to study Confucian classics, write poetry and practice calligraphy. Emperors knew virtually nothing of the outside world and were never consulted in any decisions the Shogunate made.

Emperor Go-Daigo

The Meiji Restoration (明治維新) and industrial revolution of the 1860s and 1870s following the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate was considered by many to be a return to power for the Emperor. Reading into it a little more however, it seems that power was merely transferred from the Shogunate to a group of the more powerful former daimyo (大名), who became prefectural governors, industrial magnates or oligarchs whose wealth and power increased drastically thanks to the industrial revolution and re-establishment of global trade.

Following the World War II, the new constitution came into effect in 1947. The first eight articles relate to the Emperor, stripping him of what little power he actually had and setting up the Imperial Household Law and the Imperial Household Council (皇室会議). It is the duty of the Imperial Household Council to oversee things such as succession and marriage of the imperial family. The council consists of members of the current ruling government, including the Prime Minister and members of the Imperial Household Agency (宮内庁) and it is also the council’s responsibility to control the day to day affairs of the Imperial Family.

Compounding the fact that the Imperial Family has no control over their own destiny is the problem that many, if not most Japanese politicians, especially those on the Imperial Household Council, are staunchly conservative and don't like to upset the current status quo. This means that they are unable, or unwilling to see more than one interpretation of the constitution, much like the hardcore Republicans in the US. As far as I can tell, while there are no laws that specifically allow for an abdication, I also couldn't find any laws that specifically prohibit it. I am not a constitutional scholar though so I may very well be wrong on this point.

Last year, the government did set up a commission to look into the viability of Emperor Akihito abdicating. However, this was somewhat bizarrely made up of business leaders and a couple of journalists but not a single expert in any field relevant to the constitutional history. A large number of more cynical commentators have taken this, together with this year long waiting period, as a sign that the government is secretly hoping that time and nature will deal with this problem for them. These commentators point out that this year-long waiting period to "consider the feasibility" is ridiculous because if he were to die tomorrow, Crown Prince Naruhito would immediately take over anyway.

The abdication of a Japanese Emperor is also not without precedent. In fact, it has occurred quite a number of times over the nearly 3,000 years of the Imperial Line. The last Emperor to abdicate was Emperor Kōkaku (光格天皇) in 1817, in favor of his son who became Emperor Ninkō (仁孝天皇). Prior to this, it was not unusual for an Emperor to abdicate, or be forced to abdicate by the Shogunate, though a considerable number of Emperors actually died at a relatively young age. Although there have only been a handful, Empresses reigning outright (those not married to an Emperor), were also forced to abdicate as soon as a male heir could be found.

Emperor Kōkaku

Abdication was also very common during the Heian Period, but this took a slightly different format. Called Insei (院政) or Cloistered Rule, the Emperor abdicated by taking his vows as a Buddhist monk and retiring to a monastery. He then became a Daijō Tennō (太上天皇) or Jōkō (上皇) meaning Retired Emperor or a Daijo Hōō (太上法皇) meaning Cloistered Emperor. This practice was put in place by Emperor Shirakawa (白河天皇) in 1086 though there had been similar abdications before.

Emperor Shirakawa

While this method does give some food for thought, it is also not ideal. Cloistered Emperors retained considerable power and often had their own armies. They made decisions and continued to govern or exert pressure behind the scenes, especially in cases where they had abdicated in favor of an infant son. This was typically done so that the "Retired" Emperor could continue to rule, if not in name, without having to worry about a potentially troublesome regent.

If I am honest, this whole situation makes me a little sad and angry. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko (皇后美智子) have served Japan well with grace and humility. Even when he hinted at the possibility of retiring, he framed the situation in the manner of being a burden and unable to continue performing the duties which were expected of him. I think many people in Japan would like to see them retire and live out the rest of their days in quiet dignity.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko Credit: Japan times

*Although I have some knowledge of the history of the Imperial Household, I do not consider myself an expert, nor am I a constitutional scholar so this should be considered only as an opinion piece. 

*Top Image Credit to AFP

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