The Emperor’s decision to break his silence on the controversial issue has sparked considerable debate and contemplation in Japan.
It’s been nearly a month since rumors of the Emperor’s wish to abdicate emerged, sending shockwaves and feelings of uncertainty throughout Japan. Many in the country have either refrained entirely from commenting on the politically delicate issues surrounding this news or tread lightly when doing so, reflecting the respect with which Emperor Akihito is still widely-regarded.
On August 8th, Emperor Akihito broke his silence, however, appearing in a video message that alluded to the possibility of resignation. Under the current system encoded in the Japanese Constitution, this isn’t normally possible, and many commentators have remarked that the process to reverse this rule would be very difficult.
▼ You can watch the Emperor Akihito’s message below.
At the beginning of the video, which runs about 11 minutes long, the Emperor Himself remarks that as the Emperor he “must refrain from remarking on the existing Imperial system.”
He proceeds to reflect on his legacy, having passed the age of 80 and fulfilling his role as the living symbol of Japan for the last 28 years. He addresses the audience as “an individual, rather than Emperor,” and the tone of the video is very personal, dealing frankly with his health and advancing age.
In the recent past, he has referred to the burden of performing the ceremonial duties that come with being Emperor at his age, particularly after undergoing several surgeries in the last several years. The video again touches on these themes, as well as his own reflections on his relationship with the people of Japan.
Abdication of the throne is without precedent in modern history, though it was not at all uncommon for emperors in the past. Those that did so would frequently retire to take the tonsure to become monks — some of them would continue to wield political influence even after doing so. The last Emperor to yield his position while alive was about two centuries ago, when most Japanese emperors played only a marginal, ceremonial role in public life.
▼ The Meiji Constitution changed the Emperor’s status in Japan in a big way.
With the Meiji Restoration in 1867 and the announcement of the Meiji Constitution in 1889, the Emperor was elevated to a position of extraordinary political and symbolic significance, albeit a diminished one following the end of the Second World War and the introduction of the post-war constitution.
▼ The Emperor and the Empress traveled to the Philippines earlier this year.
Still, it remains shocking to many in Japan that the Emperor would ever leave the throne during his own lifetime. Meanwhile, some observers have speculated that the Emperor’s recent actions could point to his displeasure with the direction of political discourse in the country. Though it’s impossible to say for sure, the Emperor in the past has appeared repeatedly in public to denounce the loss of life during the Second World War, traveling in recent years to places like Palau and the Philippines to honor those that passed away during the brutal conflict.
An English-language transcript of the full video is available here.