Earth & Conservation

Japan's Monarchy Explained

In August 2016, Japan's emperor suggested that he may leave the throne. So just how does the Japanese monarchy work?

Emperor Akihito of Japan wants to retire from his position. He's 82 years old, he's had prostate cancer, he's had heart surgery, and he's ready to let his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, take over the job. There's just one slight problem: Japanese emperors are barred by the constitution from stepping down from the throne. It hasn't happened in nearly 200 years.

The Japanese monarchy, the Chrysanthemum Throne, is the oldest monarchy in the world. Emperor Akihito's family has held it for 2,700 years. But Japan is also a liberal democracy and the monarchy represents a post-WWII country that is committed to pacifism. This means that the Japanese government will likely face criticism for either decision.

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If the government allows the emperor to resign, it could raise concern about the government's influence over the monarchy. "People both on the right and left would be cautious about making sure this process doesn't weaken the institution and therefore open up the succession to political influence," said Sheila A. Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times.

However, opinion surveys conducted by the Japanese media show that the people of Japan support Emperor Akihito's right to a restful retirement, and would be okay with amending Imperial Law to allow it.

But amending the law to allow the emperor to step down could also open up an on-going debate about another proposed amendment: allowing women to inherit the throne. Currently, only men can take over the throne, but many people believe it's time for that law to change.

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Under Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's government, women are very empowered in the country, especially in the workplace. Still, many people don't believe that power is ready to extend to the monarchy.

When Emperor Akihito addressed the people of Japan on local television last Monday, he did not use the word abdication but he certainly hinted at it saying that he did not wish to be a monarch who "continues to be the emperor till the end of his life, even though he is unable to fully carry out his duties."

Although he's not politically powerful, Emperor Akihito has taken up many social causes throughout his reign, one of the most important being his work towards accessing clean water in poor countries. He also drew attention to the paralympics when Japan hosted the summer Olympics in 1964, helping to destigmatize physically disabled people in the country Whether he is allowed to retire now or remain on the throne until his passing, Emperor Akihito will leave behind a legacy of his important work towards social change.

-- Molly Fosco

Learn More:

NPR: Japanese Emperor Signals Wish To Abdicate Throne

New York Times: At 82, Emperor Akihito of Japan Wants to Retire. Will Japan Let Him?

Wall Street Journal: The Future of the Chrysanthemum Throne

About.com: Emperor Akihito