The fact that the Imperial Agency released footage of the Emperor reading his statement, and the very swift response from the Abe government to the statement, set speculation running that perhaps the Emperor, known for his pacifist tendencies, was issuing a challenge of sorts to the Abe government to rein in its desire for Japan to become a more “pro-active” participant in security operations globally (and the concomitant promotion of the Japanese defence industry that this would entail) by speaking directly to the Japanese people on the issue of his role as Emperor. As the Japanese Constitution makes abundantly clear, the Emperor is a symbol, no more and no less, of the people, who retains that position through the will of the people. He retains no authority over the state and is at most a ceremonial figurehead.
In sum, the Emperor functions as the living embodiment of the Japanese nation and its ethos but has no recourse to the constitutional rights that are bestowed on the average Japanese citizen. According to the Kōshitsu Tenpan (established in 1947 to clarify the position of the Emperor in the Japanese state), the position of Emperor can only be held by male heirs, who will succeed to the position of Emperor upon the death of the previous Emperor. There is no legal recourse for an Emperor to abdicate in favour of a heir, or for a heir to assume the position of Emperor in his father’s stead. It is a job for life, so to speak, regardless of Emperor`s wishes.
Now you may well ask what does all this have to do with the Abe government’s security agenda? You will recall that in March this year the Abe government passed two laws in the Diet that allow the Self Defence Force to be deployed in actions deemed to be related to collective self-defence, thereby re-interpreting Japan’s Constitution without changing the actual wording of the Constitution (which would require a plebiscite). This act has fuelled further speculation that Shinzo Abe himself is ultimately aiming at a revision of the Constitution, removing Japan from its imposed limits on military action and therefore making Japan a more “normal” nation able to contribute to enforcing stability in an increasingly unstable world.
So if Shinzo Abe is considering changes to the Constitution, the statement by the Emperor this week about his constitutional position should be given greater priority by a government considering such changes, or so the argument goes. The prime minister, as the representative of the people, has the authority to bring about revision of the Constitution that would allow the Emperor to abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. Naruhito would be far more energetic in pursuing ceremonial duties and expressing his opinion, and is known to share his father’s pacifist tendencies. Furthermore, given that Naruhito’s only child is Princess Aiko (Toshi-no-Miya), a Constitutional proviso might also be made whereby an Emperor may abdicate in favour of his heir regardless of whether it is a he or a she.
Having an Empress succeed to the throne would set another unprecedented development in the history of modern Japan and would grate with the more conservative, nationalist sectors of Japanese society who have long harboured the desire for Japan to revere male heirs to the throne and restore the concept of Japan as a ‘divine’ nation (i.e., the pre-1945 definition of the state). For the Abe government, known for its nationalist tendencies, any change in the Constitution to acquiesce the Emperor could thus generate changes that could complicate relations between the government and the Imperial palace down the line.
To refuse to do anything to address the Emperor’s concerns could impact on the government, for it would damage the government’s popularity, particularly with its conservative base, not to mention the wider Japanese community which has only admiration for its Imperial family. It could invite a backlash against the LDP/Komeito coalition which could be reflected at the polls or, more disturbingly, incite the more extreme elements of the nationalist movement to violently protest against the government.
Japan’s history is replete with examples of what happens when a ruling administration chooses to ignore the desires of the Imperial household and they usually don’t end well for the said administration. So the Abe government faces a number of choices: put a plebiscite to the Japanese people to re-write the Constitution and the Kōshitsu Tenpan to allow the Emperor to abdicate, say that the issue will be examined and then hope it goes away, or do nothing. The last option would be very risky and the first would require more effort than the government may be prepared to expend, so the preferred option may be the middle one – make an appearance of activity without actually changing anything.
If the legislative changes were approved, this might lead to a re-introduction of the system of Insei, or 院政. This aspect of Imperial rule was removed in 1889 under the former Imperial Household laws (which forbade the Emperor to abdicate), and no incumbent Emperor has abdicated in favour of his successor since the Emperor Morohito (Kōkaku Tennō) in 1817. Yet Insei was, for centuries, an accepted means by which an Emperor could abdicate in favour of their heir while still retaining some influence over the Imperial household. In past centuries, given the higher level of mortality and instability of the state, an incumbent Emperor might choose abdication after appointing his successor because of ill health or because it was demanded of him to remove his influence over the politics of the day. His successor would then continue to perform the functions of the Emperor and the Imperial lineage would continue unabated and free from any threat of retribution.
Whether this same Imperial system would be applicable in the modern day depends on the extent to which it would be re-introduced. It would be prudent to write clauses into the Constitution that would permit a reigning Emperor to abdicate but retain the restrictions on the Emperor`s position to that of a symbol. This would give an Emperor the ability to abdicate under reasons of ill health or mental incapacity without interfering in any way in the relationship between the Imperial household and the government. This would not, therefore, be the re-introduction of the system of Insei per se, as the former Emperor would not be allowed to involve himself (or herself) in the affairs of the household in any way. But with historical precedents in abundance it would be unusual for the government to ignore this aspect of Imperial rule without considering how it might be applied in the modern era.