Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

A big blow to Abe's revisionist designs

By LIU QINGBIN (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-13 10:37

A big blow to Abe's revisionist designs

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wave to well-wishers who gathered to celebrate the monarch's 79th birthday at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo Dec 23, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

In a rare televised speech on Monday, Japan's 82-year-old Emperor Akihito hinted his wish to abdicate because his declining health is preventing him from fulfilling all his duties. Last month NHK, Japan's national public broadcasting organization, reported that Akihito, who is suffering from prostate cancer and heart problems, wanted to step down in a few years.

Although Akihito stopped short of saying that he wished to abdicate, the very possibility of his unprecedented abdication has sparked a heated debate on the future of Japan's 2,600-year-old royal family, one of the world's oldest.

Chinese observers' opinions on Akihito's 10-minute speech are divided. Many argue the emperor's hint at abdication is aimed at thwarting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's attempts to amend Japan's pacifist Constitution. Japan's royal family, especially the emperor and his eldest son, 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, have constantly urged Japanese people and politicians to respect the Constitution and reflect upon the country's wartime history.

Some, on the other hand, tend to play up the conflict between Naruhito and his younger brother Akishino over the throne. Naruhito is most likely to succeed Akihito, but the crown prince's only child Princess Aiko cannot follow him to the throne under Japan's male-only succession laws. His brother, however, has a son.

Although Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party enjoy a more than two-thirds majority, along with their coalition partners, in the upper house and are bent on amending the Constitution to make Japan "a normal state", it is unlikely that they pressured the emperor to hint at retirement in order to expedite the constitutional amendment.

Rather, Akihito's message could be a complaint against the government ignoring for a long time his request to retire because of his inability to fulfill the ceremonial duties, and a suggestion to allow princesses and their children to inherit the throne.

In his Monday address, Akihito emphasized his role as the "symbol of the state", signaling his opposition to elevation of the emperor as head of state, which the Abe administration suggested in its new constitutional draft. Perhaps Akihito wants to change the monarchy into a profession that allows retirement to deal a blow to Japan's burgeoning militarism.

The vast majority of Japanese people is reportedly sympathetic toward the emperor because of his difficult schedule and supports his desire to retire. But for that to happen, Japan's parliament needs to revise the 1947 Imperial House Law, as the Constitution does not support abdication by a reigning emperor.

As much as some Japanese right-wingers want to abolish the emperor's ceremonial role, which remains the crux of Shinto religion and hence deterrent to their efforts to "soften" the Constitution, Akihito seems to have thrown a spanner in their works by hinting his wish to abdicate.

In fact, Akihito's speech could tie legislators in knots, involve considerable political resources and manpower, and prevent any such constitutional backsliding, because of the absence of any legal precedent. And a new clause or revision allowing a reigning emperor to retire could create huge rifts among legislators before it comes into effect.

That explains why some rightists called Akihito's intention to retire a constitutional "violation". In his address commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II last year, the emperor expressed "deep remorse" over Japan's atrocities before and during the war. He made similar remarks during his 1992 visit to China, the first and only one by a Japanese emperor.

Even if his abdication is eventually approved, Akihito could still help the new emperor perform his duties in a display of unity in the royal family. But even without it, Japan's ceremonial monarchy can defend the Constitution from ill-intentioned right-wing revisionists.

The author is an associate professor at University of International Business and Economics.

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