The relationship between monarchies and geopolitics is both long-standing and all-encompassing through an array of national and imperial networks and relationships. Thus, when countries decide to replace their monarchs with elected presidents we rightly note this as significant.
Japan’s emperor is, under the terms of the 1947 Constitution, ‘the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people’. The Constitution was drafted by the American occupation force at the end of WWII and designed to guide a defeated Japan into a new world order, dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. A year earlier, Emperor Hirohito had to renounce his divine status and the new constitution sought to further separate politics from religion in public life. Shintoism, the emperor and Japanese militarism were widely regarded as bedfellows.
With a history stretching over millennia, however, the Japanese royal family are understood to owe their direct origins to the sun-goddess Amaterasu. As ‘the symbol of the state’, the Emperor embodies Shintoism and is a guardian of its rituals and practices. As the holder of the Chrysanthemum Throne, the current Emperor Akihito succeeded to the role after the death of his father (Shōwa) in 1989. The Japanese monarchy is the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world.
“There will be many who will be deeply alarmed by the admission of the Emperor that age and illness are relevant factors”
Recently, Emperor Akihito, who is 82-years-old, announced through a video message that he thought illness and age were impairing his ability to continue in his role. Without saying so directly, he gave the clearest possible hint that he wanted to abdicate and allow his son, Crown Prince Naruhito to accede to the throne. The dilemma facing the Emperor and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is that there are no formal procedures in place for abdication. In the past, the presumption was always that succession was shaped by the death of one male successor in favour of the next. His speech was remarkably candid and questioning of ritual including the lengthy practice of mourning and ‘funeral events which continue for one year’. It seemed clear from his message that the Emperor thought that wider reform should be discussed.
Reforming the Japanese royal family might prove more problematic than simply addressing the issue of abdication. In conservative Japanese circles, there will be many who will be deeply alarmed by the admission of the Emperor that age and illness are relevant factors. As the living embodiment of a deity, the ‘symbol of the state’ is expected to perform their duties until death intervenes. The Emperor’s video message was quite matter of factual about the ‘demands of the job’.
While the Japanese public is sympathetic overall, it does remind voters and politicians alike that the current role and scope of Emperor is still shaped by that post-war constitution. There has been one abdication in the past, in 1817 (Emperor Kōkaku), so it is not entirely without precedent.
Whatever the outcome of his abdication hints, the Emperor has provoked a flurry of media and political speculation about what might follow. Would women ever be allowed to be head of state, for example? This was debated in 2006 when at that stage the Crown Prince and his wife did not have a son. Would the Emperor as ‘symbol of the state’ ever be formally disconnected from the Shinto religion? While the Emperor has no formal political powers, he does conduct religious ceremonies, but this could change in the future as Shintoism becomes less important to many Japanese people in everyday life.
“Prime Minister Abe has been at the forefront of calling for the country to make itself ‘great again’. His message is unapologetically nostalgic”
The Japanese Prime Minister has aired the possibility of establishing a regency, whereby the Crown Prince would in effect inherit some of the ceremonial duties from his father, such as meeting foreign dignitaries. But there are limits to potential reform. Conservative sections of Japanese public life continue to resent the intervention of the US and the years of post-war occupation. They believe that the 1947 Constitution was coercive and intervened in the religious and political life of Japan. There is also a suspicion that if a woman was appointed Empress that there would be a danger that she might marry, or be married to, a non-Japanese consort, raising ‘fears’ that the imperial line would be compromised.
Prime Minister Abe is a devotee of Shintoism and has been a regular attendee of the Ise Grand Shrine on the main island of Honshu. He visits every new year and recently organised a G7 summit meeting close to the shrine itself. The Liberal Democratic Party under his leadership has been far more attentive to Japan’s imperial history and is striving to ensure that a new generation of Japanese students learns about the country’s great power status. This has also embraced revisionist interpretations of World War II and the country’s violent engagement with China and Korea. Under the banner of ‘traditional values’, and not so dissimilar to conservative parties elsewhere in the world, Abe has been at the forefront of calling for the country to make itself ‘great again’. His message is unapologetically nostalgic.
Perhaps what unsettles some in Japan is that the admission of the Emperor somehow captures a wider anxiety that this reflects a sclerotic Japan – weakened by long-term economic stagnation, ambivalent about Shintoism, and eclipsed by an assertive China.
This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.