TIME Japan

This Is What Could Happen If Japan’s Emperor Akihito Abdicates

Japanese Emperor Akihito waves to well-wishers gathered for the annual New Year's greetings at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on January 2, 2016.
KAZUHIRO NOGI—AFP/Getty Images Japanese Emperor Akihito waves to well-wishers gathered for the annual New Year's greetings at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on January 2, 2016.

It hasn't happened in about 200 years

(TOKYO) — Japan’s royal palace has denied reports that Emperor Akihito intends to relinquish his title in the next few years and retire, but the news still raised questions about the possibility of a succession while the 82-year-old emperor is alive. Some key points about the monarchy and what could happen:

A MONARCHY TRANSFORMED: Akihito is the 125th emperor in a line believed to date to the fifth century, making it the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. In the past, the emperor was worshipped as a deity, though that changed after World War II, and Akihito remains a head priest of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion. The emperor is a purely symbolic figure with no political power today, and Akihito has brought the imperial family closer to the public. In addition to performing ceremonies and greeting foreign dignitaries, he has visited towns to comfort residents following deadly earthquakes. He was the first emperor to marry a commoner, Empress Michiko, and has decided to be cremated upon his death, a plan that will break a centuries-old burial custom.

NEXT IN LINE: Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, is the elder of Akihito’s two sons and first in the line of succession. An expert of medieval-era water transport systems, Naruhito is an avid hiker and skier and plays the viola. His marriage to former diplomat Masako Owada raised expectations of adding a modern face to imperial institutions, but Masako is still recovering from stress-induced mental conditions she developed after giving birth to their daughter. The succession law only allows male emperors, so Naruhito’s only child, Aiko, 14, cannot inherit. Instead, Naruhito’s younger brother Akishino is second in line and his son Hisahito, 7, is third. Discussions on changing the law to allow female succession ended with the boy’s birth.

THE PROCEDURE TO ABDICATE: The Imperial House Law stipulates imperial matters including succession but lacks a provision regarding an abdication by a reigning emperor. That omission virtually allows only posthumous succession. Experts say if Akihito does wish to retire, changing the law and taking other steps to allow it would take a few years. The law, enacted in 1947 along with the Constitution, does allow for a regency to be established if an emperor is seriously ill, physically or mentally, and is incapable of performing state duties. The reports that Akihito was considering retiring cited his wish to not keep the title if he could not fully perform his duties.

OTHER ABDICATIONS: In Japan, the last abdication was about 200 years ago during the feudal Edo period, when Emperor Kokaku abdicated to son Ninko, while he ascended to a superior title. Abroad, Spain’s former King Juan Carlos abdicated at age 76 to King Felipe in 2014 amid scandals, and the succession laws to allow it were changed in just two weeks. In the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix in 2013 at age 75, citing old age, abdicated to her son Alexander, who became the country’s first male successor in more than a century. In Belgium, the former King Albert, then 79, abdicated to his son Philippe in 2013 due to health reasons.

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