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Emperor Akihito

Akihito is a popular figure and is seen as a more approachable and engaging emperor than his father. He even broke with tradition to marry a commoner, the Empress Michiko.

During the Heisei era, Japan experienced a slowdown of its economic boom, dropped behind China as the world's second-largest economy, and accrued an unprecedented national debt. The average age of the population also increased and Japanese refer to the period as the "lost decades." The Heisei era was also marked by political turbulence and saw 17 prime ministers, with only four lasting more than two years. Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko provided a source of consistency and reliability for Japanese society during these uncertain times. They consoled victims of natural disasters, provided a humanitarian example, and became a symbol of Japan's moral conscience by retaining the memory of World War II.

The couple redefined the role of the imperial family. They met with victims of tragedy and visited people in retirement homes and handicapped care centers. They found a warm-hearted reception everywhere they went and Akihito became a symbol of Japan's national integration. In the Heisei era, this new style was well received as social inequality grew and many people fell into depression and lost perspective on life.

Although he was technically forbidden from making political statements, Akihito made a point to visit Indonesia and China during his first trips abroad. In China he expressed regret for Japan's aggression and praised the accomplishments of Chinese culture, while reminding Japan of how much they owe their own culture to China. When Japan's nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided using the word "regret" during a 2015 speech for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the emperor gave his own speech and spoke about Japan's "deep self-criticism." Akihito was more committed to reconciliation with Japan's neighbors than most Japanese prime ministers during the Heisei era.

On 13 July 2016 it was reported that Emperor Akihito had expressed his intention to abdicate while he is alive and hand over his position to Crown Prince Naruhito within several years. Rhe 82-year-old Emperor conveyed the intention to Imperial Household Agency officials. He was still conducting a number of duties, including his constitutional functions. Sources within the Imperial Household Agency said that officials were arranging an occasion for the Emperor to address the public.

Akihito was abdicating the throne early due to pressure from Japanese conservatives who say his health is failing and that he is too old. Akihito was said to be concerned over the legacy of his reign and wants to preserve the image he created for Japan's monarchial institution. Akihito wanted to abdicate early in order to transfer his activities untarnished to his son.

The Emperor told Agency officials that someone who can fully carry out the required duties of the national symbol as stipulated in the Constitution, should be in that position. The the Emperor did not want to remain in his position by significantly reducing his duties or asking other people to stand in for him. The Emperor's wishes were accepted by Empress Michiko, his eldest son Crown Prince Naruhito and younger son Prince Akishino.

The Emperor would like to see the abdication take place within the next several years. The arrangements were underway for the Emperor to announce his wishes to the public. In the event of his announcement, as a national symbol the Emperor may avoid direct expressions. But the announcement will be one that conveys his feelings well.

In Japan, nearly half of the 124 Emperors before the current Emperor's father, Emperor Showa, abdicated in such a manner. But after the Meiji era, which was 3 periods before the current Heisei era, the system of abdication ended. An abdication has not taken place for about 200 years, the last coming in 1817 when the Kokaku Emperor stepped down. The Imperial Household Law has no provisions regarding abdication. The will of Emperor Akihito is likely to lead to a national debate including a possible revision to the law.

Emperor Akihito expressed concern that it may become difficult for him to carry out his duties as his physical condition declines. The 82-year old Emperor delivered a 10-minute video message to the public on 08 August 2016. His message alluded to his wishes regarding abdication. He maintained that he must refrain from making any specific comments on the existing Imperial system, but that he would like to express his thoughts as an individual.

He said it is not possible to continue perpetually reducing the Emperor's acts in matters of state and his duties as the symbol of State. He said a Regency may be established to act in place of the Emperor, but that does not change the fact that the Emperor will continue to be the Emperor until the end of his life. He expressed concern that when the Emperor is ill, society comes to a standstill and people's lives are impacted in various ways. He noted it may become difficult for him to carry out his duties as the symbol of the State, as his fitness level is gradually declining.

Regency is established in accordance with the Imperial House Law (Constitution of Japan, Article 5). When the Emperor is a minor, Regency is established. In case the Emperor is afflicted with a serious disease, mental or physical, or there is a serious hindrance, and he is unable to perform his acts in matters of State, Regency is instituted by a decision of the Imperial House Council (Imperial House Law, Article 16). The Emperor may delegate the performance of his acts in matters of State as provided by law (Constitution of Japan, Article 4(2)). The Emperor may delegate the performance of his acts in matters of State to a member of the Imperial Family according to the order of assumption for Regency, as stipulated in the Imperial House Law, with the advice and approval of the Cabinet, when he is afflicted with a serious disease, mental or physical, or there is a serious hindrance, in cases other than those fit for establishment of Regency. (Act on Temporary Delegation of the Emperor's Acts in Matters of State, Article 2).

The emperor cannot simply abdicate his throne because the 1947 Imperial House Law states that imperial succession can occur only upon an emperors death. Abdication is not mentioned under existing laws, so changes would be required to enable the Emperor to stand down. The emperor stopped short of advocating that parliament change the law because he did not want to be seen as interfering in national politics. The Emperor is barred by the Constitution from making political statements, but that he sent a strong message to the government on the need to begin the process of abdication.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he took Emperor Akihito's address to the Japanese people seriously. The prime minister said he is thinking about the weight of the Emperor's duties and strain it may be causing in light of his age. Abe said he will carefully consider what the government can do for the Emperor. If the abdication goes ahead, it would be the first by a Japanese Emperor in about 200 years, and that full-scale discussions would be held about his status and title after his abdication. Some traditionalists in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative ruling coalition are reluctant to open the abdication issue up for debate, because the process could introduce other changes they strongly oppose, like allowing women to inherit the throne.

Japan's Diet gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a report on 17 March 2017 calling for special legislation to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate. The speaker and president of the lower and upper houses and their deputies met representatives of the ruling and opposition parties to conclude discussing the abdication issue. The chiefs and deputies then met Abe to hand him the report on the talks.

The Diet discussed the possibility of abdication after the Emperor, in a televised speech in August 2016, expressed apparent desire to step down. The report says one-time special legislation applying only to Emperor Akihito is desirable because the Diet can decide on such cases in the future in view of public consent.

Japan's Constitution says imperial succession must be based on the Imperial Household Law. The report says a provision should be added to the law to stipulate that it includes the special legislation so that abdication will raise no questions of constitutionality. It says the special legislation should include a clause on the Emperor's status and title after abdication.

While the emperor does not overtly take sides in Japanese politics, Akihito has made recent statements that seemed critical of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abes ruling coalition. The emperor has been a strong proponent of preserving the pacifist constitution that Abe wants to revise to expand the powers of the military.

Michiko, the first commoner to marry a royal heir, grew gaunt and visibly unhappy in her younger days due to stress, but became the most visible and widely traveled imperial consort in Japanese history.

The emperor's constitutional status became a focus of renewed public attention following news of Hirohito's serious illness in late 1988. Crown Prince Akihito became the first person to ascend the throne under the postwar system. One important symbolic issue was the choice of a new reign title under the gengo system-- borrowed originally from imperial China and used before 1945-- which enumerates years beginning with the first year of a monarch's reign. Thus 1988 was Showa 63, the sixty-third year of the reign of Hirohito, the Showa Emperor. The accession of a new monarch is marked by the naming of a new era that consists of two auspicious Chinese characters. Showa, for example, means bright harmony.

Critics deplored the secrecy with which such titles were chosen in the past, the decision being left to a government appointed committee of experts, and advocated public discussion of the choice as a reflection of Japan's democratic values. Although the gengo system was accorded official status by a bill the Diet passed in June 1979, some favored the system's abandonment altogether in favor of the Western calendar. But on January 7, 1989, the day of Hirohito's death, the government announced that Heisei (Achieving Peace) was the new era name. The first year of Heisei thus was 1989, and all official documents were so dated.

Still more controversial were the ceremonies held in connection with the late emperor's funeral and the new emperor's accession. State support of these activities would have violated Article 20 of the constitution on the separation of state and religious activities. Rightists, such as members of the Society to Protect Japan (Nihon o Mamoru Kai), a nationwide lobbying group, demanded full public support of the ceremonies as expression of the people's love for their monarch. Walking a tightrope between proconstitution and rightist groups, the government chose to divide Hirohito's state funeral, held February 24, 1989, into official and religious components. Akihito's accession to the throne in November 1990 also had religious (Shinto) and secular components: the Sokuino -rei, or Enthronement Ceremony, was secular; the Daij sai, or Great Thanksgiving Festival, traditionally, a communion between the new monarch and the gods in which the monarch himself became a deity, was religious. The government's decision to use public funds not only for the Sokui-no-rei but also for the Daijosai, justified in terms of the "public nature" of both ceremonies, was seen by religious and opposition groups as a serious violation of Article 20.

In the early 1990s, an array of such symbolic political issues brought attention to the state's role in religious or quasireligious activities. Defenders of the constitution, including Japanese Christians, followers of new religions, leftists, and many members of the political opposition, considered any government involvement in religious aspects of the enthronement to be a conservative attempt to undermine the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution. They also strongly criticized the 1989 Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture's controversial directive, which called for the playing of the prewar national anthem ("Kimigayo," or "The Sovereign's Reign") and display of the rising sun flag (Hinomaru, the use of which dates to the early nineteenth century) at public school ceremonies. Although since the late 1950s these activities had been described by the ministry as "desirable," neither had legal status under the postwar constitution.

Another issue was state support for the Yasukuni Shrine. This shrine, located in Tokyo near the Imperial Palace, was established during the Meiji era as a repository for the souls of soldiers and sailors who died in battle, thus a holy place rather than simply a war memorial. Conservatives introduced bills five times during the 1970s to make it a "national establishment," but none was adopted. On the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan, on August 15, 1985, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and members of his cabinet visited the shrine in an official capacity, an action viewed as a renewed conservative effort, outside the Diet, to invest the shrine with official status.

Despite the veneer of Westernization and Article 20's prohibition of state support of the emperor's religious or ceremonial activities, his postwar role was in some ways more like that of traditional rather than prewar emperors. During the Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-26), and early Showa (1926-89) eras, the emperor himself was not actively involved in politics. His political authority, however, was immense, and military and bureaucratic elites acted in his name. The "symbolic" role of the emperor after 1945, however, recalled feudal Japan, where political power was monopolized and exercised by the shoguns, and where the imperial court carried on a leisurely, apolitical existence in the ancient capital of Kyoto and served as patrons of culture and the arts.

Emperor Akihito, in an effort to put a modern face on the Japanese monarchy, held a press conference on August 7, 1989, his first since ascending to the throne. He expressed his determination to respect the constitution and promote international understanding.

Japan's long wait for a male successor to the Chrysanthemum throne came to an end early on the morning of 06 September 2006, as Princess Kiko, wife of the Emperor's second son, gave birth to the Imperial family's first male heir in 41 years. His birth was likely to bring an end to any remaining debate on revising Japan's Imperial Household Law to allow females and matrilineal descendants to ascend the throne. Public reaction was overwhelmingly positive, notwithstanding some sniping about the costs of supporting the royal family in the media.

On November 12, 2009 the Emperor, along with the Empress, held a press conference prior to a government-sponsored ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of his accession. Looking back on the last 20 years, the Emperor expressed concern about the people's livelihoods amid the severe economic situation, saying, "I am deeply concerned about the people's lives." Asked about the possibility that the declining number of young imperial family members will make stable succession to the Imperial throne difficult in the future, the Emperor indirectly indicated for the first time that he and the Empress are concerned about the matter, replying, "I think your question is accurate. ... I have spend the years thinking about the long history of the emperors and the general public, while exploring how best to function as a symbol of the state." Emperor Akihito, who has become the first emperor to take the throne under the existing Constitution, said about the last 20 years. "I would like to see a society where everyone supports one another. I wish for the peace and security of Japan and the health and happiness of the Japanese people."

Emperor Akihito expressed rare "deep remorse" over his country's wartime actions in an address 15 August 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's Second World War surrender. "Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated," Akihito said in his speech. Japanese media said it was the first time he had used the words "deep remorse" in reference to the war. Akihito also emphasised that Japan's peace and prosperity stand on "the people's tireless endeavours and their earnest desire for peace", and renewed his war-renouncing pledge. The speech came a day after prime minister Shinzo Abe fell short of apologising in his own words to the victims of Japanese aggression.

Emperor Akihito reflected on his era at a press conference in December 2018, just before his 85th birthday. He said: "I have believed it is important not to forget that countless lives were lost in World War Two and that the peace and prosperity of post-war Japan was built upon the numerous sacrifices and tireless efforts made by the Japanese people, and to pass on this history accurately to those born after the war. It gives me deep comfort that the Heisei Era is coming to an end, free of war in Japan."

During the Heisei era, Japan experienced a slowdown of its economic boom, dropped behind China as the world's second-largest economy, and accrued an unprecedented national debt. The average age of the population also increased and Japanese refer to the period as the "lost decades." The Heisei era was also marked by political turbulence and saw 17 prime ministers, with only four lasting more than two years.

Emperor Akihito and his wife Michiko provided a source of consistency and reliability for Japanese society during these uncertain times. They consoled victims of natural disasters, provided a humanitarian example, and became a symbol of Japan's moral conscience by retaining the memory of World War II.

Part of Emperor Akihito's legacy will be how he defined the position as a "symbol of the state" under the post-war Constitution. The Emperor's down-to-earth demeanor was crucial to doing so. People around the world might have memories of Japan's wartime Emperor who's above the clouds and thousands of Japanese bowing in unison to him, but Akihito had been among people. The country got its first taste of the new Emperor's style in 1991 when he and the Empress visited people who had evacuated areas of southwest Japan after a volcanic eruption. This is when we saw some of the most spectacular images early in the reign, showing us that the distance between the people and the imperial couple was going to be very much narrowed. Consoling and encouraging disaster victims was a duty the couple seized on.

The couple has also taken eleven trips to Okinawa, the site of a fierce ground battle that killed more than 200,000 people in the closing days of World War Two. The island was devastated by the fighting and the people there were left with complex feelings toward the Imperial family. Before his first trip to Okinawa, when he was still Crown Prince, Emperor Akihito made an unbelievable effort into understanding the history and culture of Okinawa. And then repeatedly during his reign, he traveled there to try to bring Okinawa fully back into the national community because he knew the historical reasons why the people of Okinawa might have very mixed feelings toward the national community.

The Emperor and Empress have also visited battlefields overseas to pay tribute to both sides of the War. The Emperor spent an enormous amount of time trying to bring closure to the post-war era, closure to the lingering wounds of the War and the imperial era.

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