For the first time in the history of Japan, the government has passed a bill that allows the Japanese Emperor Akihito to abdicate the Chrysanthemum throne and let his son, Crown Prince Naruhito to take over. Akihito would be the first emperor to abdicate his throne. It was in August 2016 that he first expressed a veiled wish to leave the throne as he talked about his health problems and “various constraints such as in my physical fitness” that were proving to be hindrance in his official duties.
Japan has a liberal democracy and a constitutional monarchy, but the monarchy is one of the oldest in the world dating back to 600 BC. Emperor Akihito descended the throne in 1989 after the death of Japan’s longest reigning Emperor Hirohito. After the World War II, Akihito was trained in the English Language, Western manners and democratic monarchy. Akihito was the breaker of traditions. He married a commoner’s daughter in 1959, ending a 1500 year old tradition of only marrying royalty. Empress Michiko, who had usually stayed in the shadows – as is the custom for wives of emperor’s – in 2007 opened up about her life as the Empress and detailed many restrictions that she had to follow, including obtaining permission from Imperial Household Agency to go into Tokyo.
Since his succession, Akihito made a division between the monarchy and politics and militarism. Even so, he has little political power. Akihito is the “symbol of the state and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” However, before being the symbol of the state, emperors of Japan were considered to be God. They are referred to tenno which translated to heavenly sovereign. This gives the idea that the emperors have directly descended from God. Akihito’s father renounced his divinity after Japan lost World War II, doing away with what according to him was the “the false conception that the emperor is divine”. Thus, when Akihito descended, he was the symbol of state and not God. People of Japan, however, still contend with the idea of divinity.
Akihito and his wife were also the consolers in chief for natural disasters – like the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
While the Emperor is not allowed to talk politically, Akihito addressed the Japanese public in a rare television address in August 2016 and said everything just short of a wish for abdication. “I am concerned it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole body and soul as I have done so far,” he had said. The Emperor has undergone surgeries for cancer and heart. That was the third time in Japan’s history that an emperor had addressed the public via mass communication device.
With the approval of the bill, news outlets say he could abdicate the throne on New Year’s day 2018. He will be succeeded by his son Crown Prince Naruhito.