In mid July, news broke on Japan’s national broadcaster NHK that Emperor Akihito wished to abdicate in favour of his son Naruhito. A week ago, the Emperor released a video message to the people of Japan, inferring that this was indeed his desire. Although the language and tone of the message were subtle and elegant, the sub-text of the message and the impact of its delivery are deeply political, and represent a blunt rebuttal of nationalist ambition in Japan.

In one respect, the problems posed bya retiring Emperor are legal ones. While there are precedents for abdication in Japan’s monarchy, they predate both the 1889 and 1947 constitutions. The current Imperial House Law stipulates that a new Emperor can only accede to the throne when the incumbent dies. It also states that only males can inherit the throne. The solution to both problems is to amend the law.

However, in the context of contemporary Japan, the language and inferences of Akihito’s speech are akin to a gauntlet being thrown down before rightists who strive to restore Japan’s nationalism on a foundation of cultural and historical exceptionalism. These were the ideological drivers behind Japan’s Asia-Pacific war, and they are inextricably linked to the myth of divine origins of Japan’s Emperors.

Some analysts argue that Akihito has spent his 28-year reign atoning for the war that was waged in his father Hirohito’s name. In the wake of his message, it is also clear that Akihito firmly rejects any notion of associating divinity once more with the imperial family.

This is particularly timely, given the clearly-stated desire by the Abe government to engage in constitutional revision. Akihito has now made a pre-emptive statement that the symbolic status of the Emperor is appropriate for contemporary Japan and, by implication, reverting to a divine status in law is not.

The political messaging commenced with the title of the speech: ‘A speech from the Emperor concerning his duties as a symbol’. Under the 1947 constitution, the Emperor has no political power but is instead ‘a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people’. This is in stark contrast to his status in the 1889 constitution, which was ‘sacred and inviolable’.

In his message, Akihito reveled in his position as a unifying symbol, referring to his symbolic role no less than seven times in a speech lasting just over ten minutes. He rejoiced in his affinity with Japanese of his generation who are part of a rapidly ageing society, pointing to the need for the imperial family to remain relevant to the times both in Japan and abroad. When he did refer to the continuity of the imperial family line, he framed it as ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ that he had a solemn responsibility to preserve, rather than his divine destiny as a descendant of the Sun Goddess.

Akihito repeatedly placed himself among the people instead of ‘above the clouds’ in this speech by referring to his essential mortality and fallibility, citing his recent ill health and his mistakes on ceremonial occasions. This continues the thrust of his public life since he ascended to the throne in 1989. In particular, Akihito has been a visible and accessible presence in times of national trauma, including during the aftermath of the triple disasters of March 2011. At that time he also made a national address via video, personally conveying his condolences and exhortations to the people to show compassion to victims. 

When Akihito chooses this mode of communication with the nation, he cuts out the bureaucratic and political intermediaries that have for centuries controlled and manipulated this ultimate symbol of the nation. While the script may have been vetted, his iconoclastic voice was easily discernible among the careful language of political compliance. This is the man who married a commoner, and who sent his son abroad to study. The national address contributes to the myth-busting actions of an Emperor who has genuinely embraced a life of democratic symbolism.

Akihito wants to retire, like a mortal – in fact, just like an ordinary person in Japan today. By referring to himself as an ‘individual’ and by asking what was ‘appropriate’ in this day and age for an ageing monarch, he was denying rightist nationalists the licence to use the chrysanthemum throne to promote an ultranationalist agenda. By exercising his will and emphasising his accountability to the people, Akihito was reaffirming that the constitutional framing of his symbolic role was democratic.

In the space of ten minutes, Emperor Akihito presented the right, including the Prime Minister, with an extra set of parameters that will constrain how they revise the 1947 constitution. Certainly, placing the Emperor once more above the clouds and above democratic accountability is no longer an option.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jacques Beaulieu