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Emperor Akihito of Japan suggested in a televised speech on Aug. 8 he might be ready to abdicate the throne because of old age and declining health. Here’s why it’s causing waves:


Imperial law requires the Emperor to rule until death, so the Japanese parliament would have to alter the postwar constitution for the 82-year-old to quit, a move likely to be resented by conservatives. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government would “think hard” about next steps.


Any attempt to modernize or alter imperial law would likely rekindle a long-running debate in Japan on a line of succession that recognizes only male heirs. Crown Prince Naruhito has a teenage daughter unable to take the throne; instead his brother and 9-year-old nephew are next in line.


The Emperor is forbidden to meddle in politics, but his statement comes as Abe considers a revision to the constitution that would move Japan away from pacifism. Some say Akihito’s move is a quiet act of symbolism to oppose more-radical constitutional reform.


This appears in the August 22, 2016 issue of TIME.

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