Emperor Akihito’s desire to retire highlights tensions in Japan over constitutional changes, notably PM Abe’s effort to drop the pacifist clause.
Akihito’s televised address to the nation last August caused quite a stir, but only for a few days. The 82-year-old Akihito took the position that while he is now fully active and in good health, his health is likely to deteriorate as he gets older. This would impair his abilities to perform his duties and he wished to step down. While 85% of Japanese citizens supported his request, it soon became clear that he had little support among the political leadership.
Japan’s leadership has good reasons for not acting upon Akihito’s request. Chief among these is that there is no current provision in the Constitution nor in Imperial House Law for retirement or abdication. Allowing Akihito’s request would require a constitutional amendment. More importantly, there is a current provision of the Imperial House Law that allows the appointment of a regent, usually the crown prince, to look after and perform the emperor’s duties if he becomes incapacitated. This seems like a gradual alternative to abdication but one that is likely to be drawn out, perhaps painfully so, over time.
My kingdom for some rest
While the regency provision effectively blocks any need for an abdication or retirement amendment, there are more salient political issues determining the LDP’s position. Chief among these is that the protracted amendment process over abdication would effectively block the Abe administration’s focus on removing the anti-militarist provision of the MacArthur era constitution. This provision is why the Japanese military is only referred to as a self- defense force. It is also why Japan cannot initiate a conflict or war, and why defense budgets were (until recently) relatively low. China’s expanded military budget and posturing over East China Sea islands jointly claimed by Tokyo and Beijing, has led to the tit for tat increase in defense spending of a classic security dilemma.
In fact, it is not only a conflict over whether the retirement amendment or the militarist oriented amendment should come first. It is also about Emperor Akihito’s implicit opposition to removing the anti-militarist position. Like Hirohito after the occupation, Akihito sees his job as helping to preserve and work in concert with the constitution. While he cannot be overtly political, the South China Morning Post has speculated that Akihito’s move was designed to disrupt Abe’s movement towards eliminating the constitution’s anti-militarist provision.
In fact, one may look at Akihito’s reign as a uniquely stabilizing element for the Japanese political system, with elements of national identity and unity that some European monarchs have fostered. Despite this, there are also aspects of the Japanese monarchy that are unique. After all the beginning of modern Japan began with the restoration of the young, 18-year-old, Meiji Emperor to his rightful place.
Leaders of the rebellion against the Tokugawa Shogun were able to use the legitimacy provided by the new emperor’s support to end Japanese isolation and reach out around the world, beginning Japan’s successful and expedient industrialization. The Meiji-era constitution was far from liberal and modeled on the Bismarck-era German constitution. The growth of industry and the economy (as well as the creation of modern newspapers) after 1871 led to Japan’s emergence as a great power. Japan was an ally of the Britain and the Triple Entente during WWI. They even received the rights to German cessions in Shandong, China, as a reward for their participation on behalf of the allies.
During the lead up to WWII, the emperor became more than a symbol of national unity or even a force for unifying the population. He was viewed as a demi-god in Japan’s state-sanctioned Shinto religion. Soldiers and sailors fought the war in his name. His god-like stature was only enhanced by the mystery of his isolation from the public. Most people had never seen Hirohito until he became more open to the public during the American occupation. The occupation actually resulted in moving the world’s oldest monarchy from a divine status with full state powers to one that was symbolic and limited, like Europe’s monarchs. It was in both American and Japanese interests not to execute Hirohito for war crimes since he could better serve as an advocate for the new constitutional order.
Emperor Akihito balances apolitical rule with promotion of peace
In fact, the new monarchy is best seen as an amalgam or even syncretic form blending the traditional Japanese role of the monarchy with the European notion of limited monarchy. The Japanese were not about to abandon their loyalty to an emperor they had recently seen as a god. In fact, both Hirohito and later Akihito continued to lead or perform traditional Japanese rituals to link them to the people.
The U.S made the case that both Hirohito and the Japanese people had been victims of the militarists rather than militarists themselves. Hirohito made regular statements in support of the new constitution. There was some popular but not massive public dissent against this arrangement.
This arrangement is really most interesting in the current political context. Like other advanced countries, Japan has experienced a loss of jobs to cheaper overseas destinations. They have also suffered from economic stagnation dating back to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, as well as another slowdown after the 2011 tsunami.
In this environment it is not surprising that broad support would develop for a nationalist strongman – a trend that has also been seen elsewhere. Prime Minister Abe is such a strongman. During his short run as PM from 2006-2007 he advocated abolishing the constitution as an artifact of American imperialism. He has also consistently supported military expansion. One of his grandfathers was tried for war crimes but later acquitted, but he was still part of the militarist government.
Abe has refused to accept Chinese and South Korean requests for apologies and even for help for wartime “comfort women”, who had received support from previous prime ministers. He represents an extreme nationalist movement on the right wing of the LDP.
Akihito has served to balance the extreme positions of the Abe regime. During a state visit to China he expressed remorse and condolences for the abuses and deaths of Chinese during WWII, but stopped short of apologizing so as not to appear political. He has consistently supported the current constitution and its limits on his office. To the general benefit of the government he was able to calm fears during a rare televised speech addressing the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
The monarchy has existed for 2600 years and Akihito is the 125th emperor. Untainted by the war that was fought in his father’s name, Akihito has given legitimacy to pacifism and reconciliation but not to confrontation. In short he has walked close to the line that bars him from political action and in doing so he helped create stability in Japan. The Sun Goddess would be proud.