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Japan’s Emperor Akihito says health is failing and hints at abdication

In TV address, 82-year-old monarch does not explicitly say he would stand down but raises prospect of appointing regent

Japans Emperor Akihito has made a rare televised address to the nation, expressing his fears for his health and his ability to carry on as emperor, and hinting that he wants to stand down.

In the 10-minute pre-recorded speech, the monarch, 82, said he wanted an orderly imperial family succession, stopping short of saying he intended to abdicate.

Japanese law says the emperor must serve until death and is forbidden from appealing directly for retirement or abdication.

Public broadcaster NHK reported last month that Akihito wanted to step down. No emperor has done so in the modern era, which began with the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Akihito has had heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, and said a decline in his fitness levels had turned his mind to the future.

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 said.

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Reactions to Akihitos rare TV address. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Once considered divine, Japans emperor is defined in the constitution as a symbol of the unity of the people and has no political power. Even expressing a desire to abdicate infringes on restrictions on political activity.

Such constitutional restraints made the public address by Akihito a masterclass in the art of circumlocution.

Reading between the lines, his choice of words also suggests that Akihito is looking to put an orderly succession process in place to avoid disruption to the everyday lives of Japanese people, and the burden on the other members of the royal family, caused by the impaired health and possible death of an emperor.

The period of mourning following the death of an emperor can take up to a year, but there is no respite from the public duties required of the incoming symbol of the state.

The surviving family is inevitably placed in an extremely severe position. The thought that there may be some way to avoid this recurs in my heart, he said.

In particular, Akihito said it was conceivable that a regent may be appointed to deputise for some duties, while acknowledging that under the present system the emperor would be expected to serve for his natural life.

Opinion polls have shown the vast majority of Japanese people sympathise with the emperors desire to retire, but legal changes would be needed to allow him to do so.

Speaking after the address, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, suggested the government may be open to changing the laws to allow for a smoother succession. We must carefully consider what is possible, he said.

There are four possible routes for the Abe government now that Akihito has made his wishes as clear as they are likely to get under the existing rules, said Prof Naotaka Kimizuka, of Kanto Gakuin University.

First, the PM might merely continue as before, with no abdication and no regent. In a second scenario he may appoint a regent, he said.

Mr Abe might also move to alter those articles of the Imperial Household Law that govern abdication or retirement, and fourthly, the government might use this as an opportunity to amend the Imperial Household Law in its entirety.

For myself, I see Mr Abe taking options one or two, with number three being the maximum concession he would be prepared to make at this stage.

Other observers believe it is time to give the man a rest.

My take is that the government has little option but to make changes in the law for at least the current emperor to retire, said Purnendra Jain, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Adelaide.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/08/japans-emperor-akihito-health-abdication-rare-tv-address