A human declarationIn a video announcement, Japanese emperor Akihito expressed his intention to retire, stirring Japanese society. Newspapers issued extra editions and broadcasters presented special programs on this issue. While Japanese politicians and citizens are shocked by the prospect, they acknowledge retirement as a fait accompli and want to seek a plausible and realistic way to make it happen. It seems that a special law is to be created to enable Akihito to abdicate the throne.
While there are 41 countries with monarchies around the world, including constitutional monarchies and absolute monarchies, Japan’s symbolic emperor is a special establishment. When General MacArthur’s command occupied Japan after World War II, it was decided that the Japanese emperor would not be punished and allowed to remain because holding the emperor directly accountable for the war may cause resistance, affecting stable and effective occupation. The constitution also says that the Japanese emperor would remain symbolic.
Surprisingly, the constitution, later referred to as the Peace Constitution, devotes Articles 1 to 8 on the legal status and roles of the Japanese emperor. As a symbolic emperor, all real political powers were stripped. The Japanese emperor is not allowed to intervene in politics. Instead, the emperor remains as a symbol of the state and national unity. The emperor was redefined as a being who can only attend official business, including issuance of credentials for diplomatic envoys, attendance at national events and visits to disaster-struck areas and can never get involved in politics.
As Koreans remember the shameful history of being forced to be the subjects of the Japanese emperor and visit their shrines, we certainly have a special abhorrence towards the Japanese monarchy. However, Akihito acknowledged the Japanese royal family’s connection with the Baekje lineage and expressed repentance for colonial rule. Moreover, whenever he had a chance, he said that he would like to visit Korea in his lifetime. If his visit is made possible, we have vague expectations that his apology for the past would resolve the historical discords. It is presumed that former president Lee Myung-bak demanded an apology from the Japanese emperor in this context.
In Japan, Akihito is still a divine being among Japanese rightists and conservatives and a subject of the highest respect and admiration. To liberals, he is considered the guardian of the Peace Constitution with liberalist and pacifist ideas. In fact, he is known to have seriously opposed the joint enshrinement of Class-A war criminals in Yasukuni Shrine in 1978. Since then, he has not made a Yasukuni visit. When he visited Saipan, he visited the memorials for the Korean victims, building an image for history reconciliation and peace.
Some progressives think that emperor’s intention to abdicate is a blow to Abe’s attempt at constitutional revision. In the conservative camp, some argue that the Constitution should be revised to allow the emperor to retire. Both sides want to use the announcement for their political advantage.
It has been 27 years since Akihito succeeded throne in 1989. After two surgeries, the 82-year-old emperor is too feeble to fulfill his official duties. He may have expressed his intention to retire out of very human agony from old age and illness, crying out for honorable retirement from royal duties. The current constitution and Imperial Household Law, which define the succession of the emperor, states that if the emperor is unable to carry out his official duties, he can have a regent.
In a sense, the Japanese emperor is deprived of the basic freedom of occupational options guaranteed in the constitution and is forced to carry out official duties without the freedom to get out of the job. His marriage must be approved by the government, and there is little he can do at will. As a symbolic figure, the emperor is trapped in the admiration and respect of the Japanese people and cannot enjoy minimum freedoms and rights as a human.
In the 70 years since the end of World War II, the Japanese emperor has been required to carry out “official duties” to comfort the victims of disasters and attend national events. Using the charisma and status of the emperor, the current system has encouraged patriotism and national unity. The Japanese emperor’s intention to retire may be his declaration as a human being — as one of the ailing and feeble elderly with existential agony — seeking a right to retire in the aging society of Japan.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 17, Page 29
*The author is a professor and director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Kookmin University.