The Japanese Emperor – and the end of the Heisei?

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The Japanese emperor (tennou 天皇) is said to be descended directly from the sun goddess Amaterasu, and today represents the Japanese constitutional monarchy. With such a long lineage filled with time-honored customs, and tied to modern Japan through the constitution, there seems to be little room for grand changes.

Yet at the end of 2018 a major change may occur in the imperial system.

Customarily, the Japanese emperor serves as the imperial head of Japan for the duration of his natural life. Succession occurs with his death, and the title of emperor is passed on to his first-born son. However, at the end of 2018, Emperor Akihito may step down and pass on his title. This would be the first time that the title would be passed on while the present emperor, or kinjyoutennou 今上天皇, was still living.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why pass on the title?

There are a number of reasons why passing on the title, or abdicating, during his lifetime would serve both the emperor and the country as a whole. In the present day where health care is better than it’s ever been and people are living many years longer than their ancestors, the emperor may indeed live for many more years. As the emperor, at the age of 83, he must work 25 days out of the month (I work 21-22 days out of the month). I imagine that this is quite tiring!

Also, as Japan is preparing for the 2020 Olympic games, the emperor will be expected to serve as a symbol for the country. He will need to make public appearances, and if he unexpectedly falls ill during the games, this might dampen the spirits of the host country.

These are some reasons which may be behind the decision for early abdication by the emperor.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial residence buildings in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why is this decision so monumental?

The early abdication of an emperor is an event that has never occurred since the institution of Japan’s national constitution in 1947. In fact, as I understand it, the language even prevents the early abdication (likely as a safeguard against the emperor’s title being removed). Thus, to allow for this unprecedented circumstance, the Japanese constitution itself must be amended.

A committee took an initial vote on whether the emperor should be allowed to abdicate, and while the decision has not been finalized, it seems that the committee was favorable to allowing the emperor to go through with this. The change might not be permanent, though, as the government seems to favor only allowing the abdication for Emperor Akihito, rather than applying it to all succeeding emperors.

Still, Emperor Akihito may step down at the end of 2018, and pass down his title to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito (who is 56), on the first of January 2019. This would bring the Heisei 平成 era to an end at 30 years, and begin the new era – which may be named as early as this year.

How do you think the Japanese government should handle this decision? Allow him to abdicate? Make it a permanent rule? Do you think this is a good decision for Japan? Let me know in the comments!

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