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If the Pope Can Retire, Why Can't Japan's Elderly Emperor?

  • Reuters

FILE - Japan's Emperor Akihito, accompanied by Empress Michiko, leaves after delivering his remarks during a memorial service at Nippon Budokan martial arts hall in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2015.

FILE - Japan's Emperor Akihito, accompanied by Empress Michiko, leaves after delivering his remarks during a memorial service at Nippon Budokan martial arts hall in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2015.

Pope Benedict XVI did it. Dutch Queen Beatrix did it. So why is it so hard for Japan's elderly emperor to abdicate?

Public broadcaster NHK reported last month that Emperor Akihito, 82, wanted to abdicate "in a few years", something unprecedented in modern Japan.

Ordinary Japanese sympathize with his apparent desire to hand over to Crown Prince Naruhito but the idea faces stiff opposition from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative base.

Conservatives have already raised objections to changing the law to let Akihito step down, citing problems ranging from his title and possible strife with a new emperor, to worry the next step would be letting women succeed and pass on the throne, anathema to traditionalists.

Even more, conservatives fear that a debate over the imperial family's future would divert political energy from Abe's push to revise the postwar, pacifist constitution, which they see as a symbol of defeat, but admirers consider the guarantor of Japan's democracy.

Abe's ruling bloc and allies last month won a two-thirds majority in parliament's upper house, which, with a similar grip on the lower chamber, clears the way to try to change the charter. Revisions also require approval by a majority in a referendum.

"For the first time since the war's end, there is a chance for the Japanese people to revise the constitution that was forced upon them by Occupation forces," said Akira Momochi, a conservative constitutional scholar at Nihon University. "Frankly, I worry we will lose the ability to achieve this."

Live TV appearance

Once considered divine, the emperor is defined in the constitution as a symbol of the "unity of the people" with no political power.

Akihito became emperor after the death in 1989 of his father, Hirohito, in whose name Japan fought the war. He has sought to soothe the wounds of that conflict and tried to bring the monarchy closer to the public.

Unlike some European monarchies, Japan has no legal provision for abdication, though many emperors abdicated in the pre-modern era.

In what would be an unprecedented move, Akihito may appear live on television on Aug. 8 to outline his concern that age and health problems - he has had heart surgery and prostate cancer - mean he can not do his job fully, but avoid using the word "abdicate," media say.

There are no signs Akihito was influenced by Benedict's retirement as pontiff in 2013. But he may have been inspired by Queen Beatrix, who at age 75 announced her abdication on television that same year, the third Dutch queen to step down since the war.

"He wants to have a system where the emperor can hand over to a younger generation that would be closer to the people and reflect the times," one veteran journalist said.

Conservatives argue an existing system allowing the crown prince to take over as regent if the emperor is incapacitated can cover the situation, even though Akihito is far from feeble.

They also worry debate could stir calls for allowing female succession, given a shortage of male heirs. Earlier plans to revise the succession law were shelved after the birth in 2006 of Prince Hisahito to the crown prince's younger brother.

"I don't think he can ignore the views of such conservatives," Keio University professor Hidehiko Kasahara said of Prime Minister Abe.

Still, public opinion in favor of letting him abdicate could sway the debate if the emperor's appeal is emotionally moving, some experts said, noting that while many Japanese find the royals irrelevant, others are fond of Akihito himself.

"Depending on how the TV appeal is done, it could stir up public opinion," said Naotaka Kimizuka, an expert in European monarchies at Kanto Gakuin University. "Or, people could lose interest and things will go as Abe's administration prefers."

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