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14:56 12 August 2016

OPINION: It's time to address long-overdue flaw of Japan's imperial law

By Kenneth J. Ruoff
PORTLAND, Oregon, Aug. 11, Kyodo

While conducting research in the mid-1990s on the imperial house, research that would result in my book "The People's Emperor," I interacted with many Japanese scholars familiar with the Imperial Household Law. I remember every single one of them identifying as a basic defect the lack of a provision for abdication.

There can be something undeniably moving about an elderly emperor, with the empress by his side, resolutely carrying out his official duties on behalf of the nation. But anyone familiar with the aging process is all too well aware of multiple scenarios whereby the emperor (tenno) could still be alive, but in no shape to perform any public duties, not to mention to carry out a demanding public schedule. This flaw in the Imperial Household Law should have been fixed long ago -- now a remedy is urgent.

I was impressed in particular by the part toward the end of the Emperor's Monday remarks when he talked in very specific detail about his desire to minimize the inconvenience caused by his aging and eventual death to everyone around him. It reminded me that he truly is "the people's emperor."

Commentators have pointed out that because the emperor himself has had to force the issue arguably he has already overstepped his constitutional position as symbol with no role in politics. The real culprit, however, is inertia by lawmakers to address an obvious flaw in the Imperial Household Law rather than any desire by the present emperor to involve himself in the political process.

The legacy of the present imperial couple is having employed their imperial prestige to bring attention to and improve the lives of some of the most marginalized people in Japan (e.g., through their support of the Paralympics), not in having tried to involve themselves in the political process.

Thus in my mind, revising the Imperial Household Law to allow for abdication should be a straightforward matter, but it may end up being complicated. Although we are told that a government committee is secretly studying the issue, at some point the Diet will have to openly address the issue. And one can imagine additional scenarios playing out once revision of the Imperial Household Law is on the table.

After all, one of the fundamental policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration is to create "a society in which women can shine." Does this broad policy extend to the area of revising the Imperial Household Law to allow women to serve as the national symbol, as female tenno (and not just as caretaker female tenno, as Japan has had in the past, but as a female tenno who gives birth to a child who himself/herself becomes tenno, passing down the imperial line through a female).

This would break the supposedly unbroken imperial bloodline ("Bansei Ikkei") that nationalists glorify, but if there are times to honor traditions, there are also times to put to rest (contrived) traditions of the past.

Japan lacks both of the mechanisms that, in the long run, tend to be necessary to continue an all-male line, namely a concubine system and a large pool of collateral families eligible to provide an imperial heir. It is best to address the succession issue now because otherwise there will be an heir crisis sooner or later.

But at the very least, fix the Imperial Household Law to provide for abdication.


Ken Ruoff is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State University. In 2004, he was awarded the Osaragi Jiro Prize for Commentary, Japan's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for the Japanese translation of his book "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy, 1945-1995" (Harvard East Asia Monographs, 2001).




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