After nearly 26 years in power, Japanese Emperor Akihito is preparing to abdicate the Chrysanthemum throne. If Akihito follows through with his plan to retire, which he publicly announced on Monday, he will become the first modern Japanese emperor to give up his post, though by no means will he be the first to do so during his family's 2,700-year rule. More important, though, is that Akihito's departure will fly in the face of Japan's U.S.-drafted constitution, which legally bars the emperor from ceding the throne while he is still alive. The move also goes against the wishes of Japan's conservatives, who do not want to see the emperor's constitutionally ordained role as the symbol of the Japanese state altered. Whatever the immediate political consequences of Akihito's address, it is sure to play a part in Tokyo's struggle to define what kind of country — and what kind of power — Japan will be in the 21st century.
Shortly after Akihito's address, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the Japanese government was open to amending the constitution's prohibition of imperial abdication. He did not, however, explicitly commit to do so. During his stint as chief Cabinet secretary to his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, Abe reportedly opposed his boss's effort to re-evaluate and potentially revise Article I, which outlines the royal family's role in Japanese state and society. But because as much as 85 percent of Japan's population is now in favor of allowing Akihito to cede his throne, Abe (or his successors) may be more willing to adjust the law. It appears the polls may also have inclined Abe to ignore the potentially thorny issue of whether Akihito's carefully worded address was, by virtue of its implicit challenge to the constitution, an act of politics — a move that would run counter to the royal family's apolitical mandate.
Regardless of how this incident plays out, it has raised the question of whether (and why) Akihito's abdication matters. Possible concerns about the subtly political nature of his Aug. 8 address aside, Japan's emperor has remained steadfastly removed from politics for the duration of his reign. He has no direct impact on Japanese politics, nor much indirect influence on it, either. Akihito and his family are symbols, and progressively less powerful ones at that. In short, he is nothing like Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, for example, who is a formidable force of stability in his increasingly divided nation. By comparison, Akihito's retirement will do little to upset his country's day-to-day operations or short-term stability.
Where Akihito's actions could matter is in the role of the royal family in Japanese society, which in turn could affect how Japan's national identity, state-society relations and position in the rapidly changing global order evolve. Akihito's reign is coming to an end at a time of profound change in the structure of Japanese politics, society and economy. After more than two decades of economic stagnation, severe political disarray, declining bureaucratic coherence and effectiveness, rising underemployment and growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, Japan is entering a period of deep, if uncertain, reform. Buffeted by internal and external pressures, including demographic decline and the transformation of China, Japan will have little choice over the next decade but to abandon much of what has defined it since 1945. Given its historical significance to modern Japan, the royal family will be no exception. It is likely, then, that the emperor's role and responsibilities will be refashioned in some way.
Akihito assumed the throne in 1990, replacing his father, Hirohito, at an auspicious time. Hirohito had held the throne since 1926, rising to power on the eve of Japan's shift toward extreme militarism. He saw his country through a devastating world war waged in his name, and in 1945 he brought an end to the cult of emperor worship that had defined Japanese politics since the Meiji Restoration. When Hirohito died in early 1989, he did so at the peak of Japan's post-war economic boom. Less than a year later, Akihito assumed the Chrysanthemum throne, just before a series of banking and economic crises brought an end to decades of explosive growth and ushered in Japan's "Lost Decades."
It may be a coincidence that Akihito's rule has reached its twilight just as his country is struggling to wake itself from the quiescence that coincided with his rise to power. But if so, it is a haunting one, and a reminder that the Japan we have known for more than a generation is coming to an end.