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Editorial: Nation must continue to reflect on the role of the emperor

  • April 30, 2019
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 01:45 p.m.
  • English Press

Emperor Akihito abdicates the throne on April 30.


For the outgoing emperor, this is the day when his long “journey” to embody the role of the emperor as the symbol of the nation as defined by the Constitution finally comes to an end, relieving him of the pressure of the quest.


Empress Michiko probably thinks and feels much the same way about the day. Michiko played an important role in the development of the new identity of the imperial family after the end of World War II.


We offer our tribute of respect to the couple’s long years of strenuous effort.




Through his long and arduous journey, Akihito has come to conclude that “the first and foremost duty of the emperor (as the national symbol) is to pray for peace and happiness of all the people” and that “in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts.”


In concrete acts of performing this duty, Akihito, together with his wife, has sought exchanges with socially disadvantaged people, visited disaster-hit areas and made many trips to console the spirits of victims of the war both at home and abroad including Okinawa.


The way he kneels down and talks with ordinary citizens as equals has been criticized by rightists who want the imperial family to project dignity and majesty. But many Japanese have accepted and welcomed his style.


In his special message three years ago, Akihito expressed his desire to step down. In that address to the nation, he voiced his doubts about whether he should remain on the Chrysanthemum Throne while it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to perform his duties as the emperor amid declining health due to his advanced age.


His surprise move raised the issue of whether the emperor should be allowed to make a request that effectively calls for new legislation despite having no “powers related to government.”

But public opinion immediately swung in favor of respecting Akihito’s wish to abdicate.


This clearly showed broad public understanding and sympathy for his efforts.


After his message, the process of preparing for imperial succession started, including discussions within the government about issues concerning his abdication, the work to enact necessary legislation and planning related events.


The way the government has handled the matter has raised various questions and issues, including the appropriateness of using the announcement of a new era name for political gain and determining the details of related ceremonies without ensuring that the constitutional principle of separation of religion and politics will be obeyed.


A series of ceremonies related to imperial succession will be held in the coming months. We urge the government to demonstrate a sincere commitment to the principle by correcting problems if any instead of simply following the procedures adopted for the previous occasion.




In the meantime, active public debate arose about issues concerning the emperor and the imperial family, leading to new findings, interpretations and analyses through re-examinations of facts from various viewpoints.


It has been shown to the public that many of the rules and assumptions concerning imperial matters that have long been taken for granted–including the rule requiring the emperor to remain on the throne until the end of his life–were actually established during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).


The theocratic emperor system based on belief in the divine origin of the emperor under the Meiji Constitution of Imperial Japan stands out as an outlandish exception in the history of the nation.


It has also been recognized afresh that Japan could return to international community and the emperor system could continue because the nation accepted the rulings of the war crimes tribunal and acknowledged its responsibility for the war.


Fresh light has also been shed on Akihito’s past remarks concerning his thoughts about Japan’s relations with the continent. He once referred to the fact that the mother of Emperor Kanmu (737-806) was a woman of Korean ethnic origin while talking about the significance of the long history of Japan’s exchanges with the continent.


Discussions on such historical facts probably gave many Japanese opportunities to renew and reorganize their knowledge and perceptions concerning the emperor and the imperial family. In our efforts to explore the identity of the next generation of the imperial family, it is vital to learn from history, acquire correct and accurate knowledge, and remember the basic facts and principles when necessary.


What should be stressed here is that Akihito’s thoughts about the role of the emperor as the national symbol are not the only answer.


The fact that the public debate on whether the emperor should be allowed to abdicate was triggered by his own message underscored the lack of serious efforts on the part of the public to delve into important questions concerning his role and status.


If we simply accept his message and fail to think further, we will make the same mistake again.


The basic framework of the emperor’s role is likely to be handed down given the broad public support. But there should be reviews in response to the changes of the times.


The system of the emperor as the nation’s symbol requires a specific individual and his family to shoulder the entire burden of holding that status.


This system is inevitably fraught with limitations and problems related to the number of family members, their ages and health.


While the ranks of the members of the imperial family who carry out the public duties are shrinking, the scope of their activities has been widened to the limit during the three-decades-long Heisei Era, which started in 1989 and ends on April 30. One big question now is how the imperial family’s activities should be reduced to a reasonable level under what criteria.


The final decision on this question is up to the public, the holder of sovereign power.


Let us remember and reconfirm the constitutional provision that the emperor derives his position from “the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.”




One worrisome social trend in this nation is that disillusionment and frustration with politics are fueling growing public expectations for the emperor and boosting the emperor’s unifying power.


There are also arguments designed to use the abdication of the emperor–who tried to remain firmly committed to the principles of the postwar Constitution–as an opportunity to undermine values guaranteed under the Constitution, such as freedom, human rights and equality, for a political agenda to review the nation’s postwar regime.


Both trends could lead to political exploitation of the imperial family and should be rejected.


Each and every member of our society needs to recognize the danger of depending on the emperor for things that we should not depend on him for.


For the emperor to serve as the symbol of the unity of the people, our society needs to be unified.


Needless to say, that does not mean painting our society “one color” or uniting people with one agenda.


It means building a society where people accept diverse values and respect one another.


The emperor can be the symbol of the unity of the people only when political leaders perform their proper roles by healing divisions within society and eliminating potential causes of social strife while refraining from any deeds or words that could fuel conflict among people.


All politicians should take this imperative to heart.

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