TOKYO – The figure of the Japanese emperor has evolved over centuries, from historical divine origins to the more recent stature of a symbolic head representing state unity but with barely any political power.
When the government of Japan recently decided on a new name for the era that will begin on May 1 with the ascension of Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne, he had neither voice not vote in the matter, and was only a silent spectator.
The crown prince was informed by a representative of the government that the official name of his era – that would last as long as he occupied the throne – would be “Reiwa” (commanding peace).
According to the Japanese Constitution, promulgated on Nov. 3, 1946, the emperor is only a symbol of the state and the unity of the people, but does not have any executive powers.
This Constitution was drafted after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and chalked out a new role for the emperor, whose role and existence historically was derived from divine inspiration, something that has lost relevance in this day and age.
As in other constitutional frameworks, in Japan the emperor officially appoints the prime minister as per the decision of the Parliament or the Diet, designates the Chief Justice decided on by the government, and puts his assent to laws and orders issued by the authorities.
Moreover, the Imperial Household Agency, in charge of the imperial agenda and activity, is a government body, although its loyalty lies in the service of the emperor.
Makoto Inoue, who has been covering the imperial agenda for the Nikkei newspaper for some 15 years, maintains that according to the Constitution, the Japanese emperor is a symbol, but that current emperor, Akihito, has transformed the symbol into a human being.
Akihito has not wanted to be treated as a god or a robot, but to be closer to the people, said Inoue during a recent chat in the Foreign Press Center of Japan.
Another veteran reporter knowledgeable about imperial intricacies, who requested not to be named, told EFE that the role of the Japanese emperor is similar to the system of constitutional monarchy existing in the United Kingdom, and Akihito’s conduct has been largely influenced by the royal families of other nations, especially those in Europe.
However, he underlined that while the Japanese emperor does not enjoy immunity, it is understood that he cannot be criminally and civilly tried in court. This is because, among other reasons, his own fundamental rights are limited by the Constitution.
Akihito, the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in more than 200 years, will leave his son, Naruhito, the throne with a widespread popular acceptance.
According to a survey released in March by Mainichi newspaper, 87 percent of the Japanese consider Akihito has fulfilled his role as a symbol of the state, which is much higher than the popularity enjoyed by his recent predecessors.
Although the Japanese emperor does not have political functions, Akihito has sought to fulfill the limited role he has enjoyed in this respect.
His functions include inaugurating the parliamentary term, and Akihito has almost always fulfilled it since he was enthroned on February 1989. The only time he failed to do it was in 2003 when he was hospitalized for a prostate operation.
On the most recent occasion, Akihito’s brief speech only highlighted his firm hope that the Diet would fully comply with its functions.
The monarchy’s relationship with the government has not been devoid of frictions.
Experts recall that in 2013 Akihito declined an invitation of the government to take part in an official ceremony to commemorate the day Japan regained its sovereignty after US occupation, in 1952.
Initially, the emperor refused to attend because he considered that the Okinawa archipelago, in the extreme south of the country, was only recovered in its entirety in 1962, however, he finally attended due to pressure from the Imperial Household Agency.
In fact, Akihito, 85, did not formally announce in 2016 his decision to abdicate, simply because the Constitution limits his political functions to the minimum, and thus the Imperial Household law did not provide for this possibility.
Akihito expressed it in simple words: “When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now.”