Why Akihito's speech matters

Story highlights

  • Japanese Emperor Akihito delivered a rare public address on Monday
  • Nicholas Szechenyi: Akihito has signaled that it is time for a debate about imperial tradition in Japan

Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)On Monday, Japanese Emperor Akihito delivered a rare televised address to the nation about his declining health and the burden of his duties. In doing so, he has launched a much-needed discussion about the role of the country's royal family -- and perhaps about Japan's future.

According to Japanese law, Akihito, 82, must serve as emperor for life. Yet his speech has invited speculation that he might wish to abdicate the throne. And while Akihito did not state his intentions explicitly, meaning his words will remain open to interpretation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other political leaders stressed the need to take the emperor's address seriously.
    Such statements suggest this could be the opening chapter of a debate about reforming Japan's imperial traditions.
    Japan's postwar constitution stipulates the emperor is a symbol of the state and shall not have powers related to government; the emperor cannot issue statements that might be considered political and Akihito therefore avoided any direct reference to abdication, which some might construe as a critique of the laws governing the imperial household.
    However, Akihito did appear to address the issue indirectly, commenting on his poor health (he has had cancer and heart surgery in recent years) as a possible segue to a discussion of what might be possible if the emperor cannot perform his duties. He noted, for example, that a regent can be appointed if the emperor cannot fulfill his duties as a symbol of the state.
    Akihito also expressed concern about the ceremonial burdens placed on Japanese society when the emperor passes away and wondered aloud whether such a situation could be avoided. This appears to suggest he favors abdication, and it is widely believed that Akihito might hope to appoint his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, who is 56. The problem with this idea, of course, is that there is no provision for abdication in imperial household law and the Diet (parliament) would have to pass legislation authorizing this change.
    What has prompted Akihito to speak out now?
    His health could be the prime motivating factor behind the speech, although there is also some speculation that he is displeased with Abe's efforts to increase Japan's role in security affairs. Last year, the Abe government passed a package of legislation authorizing a range of defense policy reforms, such as exercising the right of collective self-defense, or coming to the defense of an ally under attack. But while coordinating more closely with the United States and other partners is a practical response to a rapidly changing security environment in East Asia, Abe's detractors consider those reforms a departure from the pacifist principles in Japan's constitution and some point to Akihito's recent comments on Japan's wartime past as potentially critical of Abe's policy agenda (though those comments also were vague and open to interpretation).
    Regardless of the emperor's motivations, his decision to address the people directly carries significant weight. (The only other time he has done so outside of ceremonial duties was in 2011, when he sought to console the nation in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake.) Despite the ceremonial nature of his duties as a symbol of the state, the public respects the emperor's role and recent opinion polls in Japan indicate support for revising the law to allow for abdication. The government therefore has to find a way to be responsive.
    Prime Minister Abe acknowledged the seriousness of the emperor's comments about his age and the burden of his duties and stressed the need to think about what might be done, though without addressing abdication, specifically to avoid implying that the emperor spoke to a political issue. Some media reports suggest Abe could form a committee of experts to examine the issue and legislators could do the same when the Diet reconvenes this fall. But adherents to tradition might balk at opening the door for reform, likely yielding an incremental approach to the issue.
    Ultimately, whatever the timeline and whatever his motivation, Emperor Akihito has signaled it is time for a debate about imperial tradition in Japan. And that reality is sure to animate the country's policy debate in the weeks and months ahead.