On April 30, the 85-year-old Japanese Emperor Akihito will abdicate his throne. It will be the first time in more than 200 years that a Japanese monarch has voluntarily ceded his position as the nominal head of state.
While that might suggest that instances of abdication are rare in the annals of Japanese history, Florida State University Associate Professor of East Asian History Annika A. Culver said there’s plenty of precedent for Emperor Akihito’s decision to step down.
“In the pre-modern era, emperors abdicated all the time,” she said. “They would often go into retirement to engage in religious pursuits. It was only relatively recently that they were meant to be in that position until they die.”
Culver, an award-winning scholar of Japanese history, said the best way to understand why a modern Japanese emperor might abdicate is to understand the imperial institution itself.
The role of the Japanese emperor in its current incarnation dates back to around the time of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which ended the Tokugawa Shogunate, re-established imperial rule and set the stage for years of broad political reform.
“Around the time of 1889 with the first Japanese constitution, you see a codification of what the roles of the emperor are,” Culver said. “He became a European-style monarch, and from then on only men were allowed to be emperors.”
The emperor’s responsibilities continued to evolve throughout the 20th century until, after World War II, the 1947 Japanese constitution defined the role as largely ceremonial.
Emperor Akihito, who ascended to the throne in 1989 after the death of his father, the wartime Emperor Hirohito, presided over a period of relative stability in Japan, punctuated by intermittent bouts of economic precariousness and social, cultural and demographic shifts.
“Now Japan has an aging population and issues of immigration,” Culver said. “They need increased immigration in order to have a stable workforce, but the government wonders how it can integrate large numbers of people who are unfamiliar with Japanese culture.”
This is one of the many questions the Crown Prince Naruhito will grapple with when he accedes to the throne later this month. Culver said the smooth and prearranged transition of power from aging father to son may be intended to preserve the image of the Imperial Household and avoid elevated public speculation about Emperor Akihito’s fitness.
“When Emperor Hirohito was dying in 1989, undue attention was placed on his terminal maladies,” she said. “That very public scrutiny of the health of the emperor and correspondingly the health of the nation may be something Emperor Akihito would like to avoid.
“The smooth transition of figurehead power is an intelligent move on his part. It makes sense, and it’s not out of line with the historical past. There’s still much reverence for the emperor, and I think this is a compassionate step for him to take. The imperial institution is malleable, and it’s been malleable in the past. It’s constantly being reinvented and Emperor Akihito is reinventing it as well by abdicating.”
Annika A. Culver, associate professor in the Department of History, can be contacted at (850) 597-1808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.