The Politicization of the Japanese Imperial Family

The Politicization of the Japanese Imperial Family

02/2017  | Reading time: 10 minutes

Emperor Akihito’s wish to abdicate has been all over the news platforms in the last couple of months. It should not necessarily take that much time to consider, the government, however, is apparently not really keen on solving the problem. Several strange or even eyebrow-raising solutions has been proposed, each more invasive than the other – but how far is too far? Where are the exact borders of family, royalty and state in Japan?

The current emperor succeeded his father, Hirohito, upon his death in 1989. It is important to note that the Japanese Imperial Family is of patrilineal descent, but it is still the longest continuous monarchy in the world. On 13 July, 2016, Akihito broadcasted a video message on the national television, indicating his strong wish to retire from official duties due to his advanced age (83), and recurring health issues. The message took the public by heart, so the government could not ignore his plea. But what are these duties, anyway?

Akihito’s announcement. 
Source: Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images

Before World War II, the emperor was acting as the head of state in Japan, a fact that would stir controversy over his role in the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army during the war. After 1945, the American occupying forces embarked on a policy of separating religion and political leadership, so that the two could never be intertwined again. For such reason, the Emperor Showa was made to renounce his deity, taking on a much more subtle role of representing the unity of the Japanese people, exercising only symbolic and ceremonial duties.

There has been no precedent for a Japanese emperor to abdicate for more than 200 years, even so, there should not be too many obstacles in Akihito’s way. The Abe cabinet chose to handle the situation with utmost care. With a little bit too much care, one might add. Originally, the abdication needs a new legislation put together exclusively for Akihito, enabling him to abdicate while still alive, and enabling Crown Prince Naruhito to take over. 

PM Shinzo Abe bowing to the Emperor and the Empress. 
Source: Pakistan Defence

Although a seemingly simple piece of legislation, there is too much fuss around. The date of the planned abdication has been pushed back several times already, with the reasoning “there is too much matter to settle around it.” Emperor Akihito has since cancelled several events and ceremonies, referring to sicknesses, but it is more likely that he found a way to obstruct the government’s evident incompetency. Recently, Prime Minister Abe announced that the abdication will possibly take place in 2019 the earliest. 

But why is the delay? Why does this procedure seem to take so long? There have been speculations about the government’s fear of threatening the democratic structure. Exploiting an emperor’s abdication for political reasons was once a rather effective tool of the leaders of Japan, which is why some analysts suspect the real reason as fear of turning the Imperial Family into political tool again. But since the Abe government puts a special emphasis on creating a legislation exclusively for Akihito, there is a more obvious explanation. There is an important feature of Japanese politics that needs to be taken into account when it comes to the Abe cabinet. There is a long existing tradition of “polling politics,” which means acting according to the status of polls measuring cabinet support. When the leadership is riding high on these polls, it is much easier to carry out more risky or controversial policies, while low popularity leads to diverting actions. With the TPP going down the drain as the sole savior of Abenomics, the Prime Minister is most probably trying to push forward the abdication issue as a distraction. 

Whether it is working or not, it is true that the public is very much invested in the fate of Akihito. The problematic aspect of these developments is the way the government is treating the Imperial Family. Abe recently released a statement implying that he intends to issue some sort of a procedure to let collateral branch members back to imperial status, in order to ensure the male succession of the family. It can be very easily debated what the moral borders of meddling into the Imperial Family’s life’s are, but it seems like PM Abe insists on involving the Emperor’s “issue” into the Japanese political life. The question is how far does he intends to go? Will he “let” other branch members back, or will he force them back? The obsession towards the Emperor he displayed in his first term indicates the latter. For the sake of the old Emperor, one can only hope Abe finds another diversion soon, and Akihito will be able to retire with honor.

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