Japan’s long-reigning emperor signals intention to step down – USA TODAY
TOKYOÂ â Japanâs beloved Emperor Akihito said his time to go is approaching, in a rare television address to the nation Monday.
The 82-year-old monarch said that declining health has made it difficult for him to continue in his official capacity.
Although he never used the word âabdicate,â Akihito made it clear that he will have to step down, ending nearly three decades as the head of the worldâs longest-running hereditary monarchy.
âWhen 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,â Akihito said during the 11-minute taped message.
Under Japanâs post-World War IIÂ constitution, the emperor is designated asÂ âthe symbol of the state and of the unity of the peopleâ but has no governmental powers and is not permitted to engage in political activity.
Nonetheless, abdication is a sensitive issue.
No Japanese monarch has stepped down in nearly 200 years and no law governsÂ such cases. Akihitoâs retirementÂ could raise delicate questionsÂ about the ban onÂ female succession, conservative efforts to rewrite Japanâs war-renouncing constitution, and the imperial familyâs place in society.
Much of Japan came to a brief halt in the mid-afternoon, as Akihitoâs message was broadcast on national television.
âHe (Akihito) is always thinking about the people of Japan. His sense of duty is very great. I hope he can have some rest,â Kiyokazu Tsuchida, 96, told Nippon Television in an interview after the speech Monday.
Tsuchida is a former Imperial Navy sailor who fought on the island of Peleliu, in the Western Pacific, during World War II. Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Peleliu in 2015 and laid wreaths at separate memorials to American and Japanese soldiers who died in vicious fighting there in late 1944.
It was only the second time since acceding to the throne in 1989 that Akihito has appeared on television to address the nation — the first was in the weeks following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, when he offered a well-received message of sympathy and support.
JapaneseÂ national broadcasterÂ NHKÂ reported last month that Akihito had informed the Imperial Household Agency, which manages the emperorâs affairs, that he wished to abdicate âin a few yearsâ because of declining health.
The government set up a special team shortly after and, according to local media reports, is now considering a law specifically permitting Akihito to step down.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a staunch supporter of the imperial family, said he listened to the address and would give the issue serious thought.
“I think we have to thoroughly think what we can do to accommodate his concerns, taking into consideration the emperor’s age and the current burden of official duties,” Abe told reporters after the speech.
A Kyodo News agency poll last month found that 85% of Japanese favored allowing Akihito to step down.
Although Akihito says he is currently âin good health,â he was treated for prostate cancer in 2003 and underwent heart surgery in 2011.
In recent years, he has cutÂ back on a schedule that included more than 1,000 meetings and public appearances a year, and goodwill missions across Japan and the Asia-Pacific region.
Humble and soft-spoken, Akihito has received praise for efforts to heal the wounds of Japanâs wartime and colonial era. He appears to have taken pains to keep his distance from emperor-worshipping conservatives and historical revisionists who have contributed to difficult relations with neighboring China and South Korea, which suffered under Japanâs wartime and colonial policies.
Akihito and Empress Michiko are venerated byÂ many Japanese and the imperial family remains a popular institution among all age groups.Â The emperorâs birthday â Dec.Â 23 â is a national holiday, when tens of thousands of well-wishers gather outside the Imperial Palace to greet the royal couple.
The imperial family traces an unbroken male line back at least 1,500 years.
The government briefly discussed revising the law in 2005 to permit women to succeed to the throne, over concern about the lack of a male heir to Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, Akihitoâs oldest son and presumed heir. Female succession was strongly opposed by conservatives and the plan was dropped after the wife of Naruhitoâs younger brother, Fumihito, gave birth to a son.