“The Emperor system in Japan is really like a religion. Just as the Christians believe in God, Japanese citizens unconsciously believe in the Emperor.”

The world’s last remaining emperor, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, has hinted that he wants to stand down from his role due to declining health. In a rare televised address to the nation on 8 August, Emperor Akihito stressed that there were “various constraints” on him being able to perform his duties, suggesting there is a need for new laws regarding emperor resignations.

Under current Japanese law emperors must remain in their role until death. Abdication is not mentioned within the current laws and any changes would first have to be approved by parliament.

If Emperor Akihito did abdicate, it would be the first time since 1817 that a Japanese emperor has stepped down. As Japan awaits the next step from Parliament, we spoke to young people in Japan to find out what their views are on Emperor Akihito’s possible abdication and the future of the Imperial Family.

Impact of Emperor Akihito’s speech

“I strongly agree with Emperor Akihito’s opinion,” said Satoko Morikawa, a 23-year-old interior designer from Tokyo.

“The tasks of emperors are tough. Not mentally, but physically it is tough work. He is over 80; he has worked enough. We say, ‘Yes of course! You did well for a long time! Take [a] rest!'”

Satoko’s views were echoed by other Japanese youth, who commended the Emperor for his hard work over the years. Among other things, these youth were particularly impressed with Emperor Akihito’s ability to visit the sites of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and, most recently, the Kumamoto region that was hit by a deadly earthquake in April 2016. Satoko praised the elderly Emperor and said: “He [always] tries to be by the people’s side.”

Yuka Takahashi, a 23-year-old student in Tsuchiura – a city in the northern Kantō region of Japan – spoke fondly of Emperor Akihito as well. She told the IPF about the significance of the Emperor today—even for the country’s youth:

“The Emperor is not just a ‘symbol’, but also an object, whom people worship by love. The Emperor really cares about the people and deeply thinks about our country. So if the Emperor says that he should abdicate, I believe that would be the best way.”

Each person spoke with an evident love and respect for the tradition of the Japanese Emperor. Eriko Abe, a 23-year-old in Tokyo, explained how much she valued Emperor Akihito as a part of Japanese culture. She described the shock she felt when she heard the Emperor’s address on television:

“The Emperor’s speech had a big impact on me, because it is not the usual way to end his position [as] Emperor.”

“On the other hand, I was happy that he told the people how he feels and thinks. These days Japanese Emperors do not have freedom and they live nervously. It was a good chance to get to know him and his opinion.”

Meanwhile, Katsuhito Okubo, a 22-year-old college student in Tokyo, perfectly summed up what the Emperor meant to him and his peers:

“The Emperor system in Japan is really like a religion. Just as the Christians believe in God, Japanese citizens unconsciously believe in the Emperor.”

A need for law reform

When asked whether the laws should be changed to allow his resignation, Satoko said: “Yes, it should. Every salary-man retires at the age of 60.”

The sentiment remained consistent among most of the young people we spoke to. There was a common desire to allow what’s best for Emperor Akihito. Expressing sympathy for the Emperor, Eriko believed the laws should be changed. She noted that while everyone else was “free and can choose any way to live”, Emperors haven’t been given that right and she didn’t believe it was fair.

“We should respect his decision. If we don’t change, the Emperor’s mind will be uncomfortalble and [it] will shorten his life – and this is the worst thing for the people.”

“I know he wants to continue his position,” Eriko continued. “But his body is getting older. He is a perfectionist, so he doesn’t want to decrease his work. I feel his toughness for working as an Emperor.”

However, Yuka wasn’t as convinced about a need for law reform. She noted that the Emperor might not want to cause trouble for the people or his own family, recalling the time when Emperor Showa died and the amount of time it took for the country to rearrange.

“He really is a warm-hearted man,” said Yuka.

“If the Emperor had to do something and made the people lose their hope, he would grieve and he would not be able to bear that.”

Katsuhito didn’t believe that the law should be changed to allow for the Emperor to abdicate. He noted that if the Emperor felt he was unable to fulfill his duties, he could appoint himself a regent who would be able to assist him. Katsuhito believed that anything else would be political intervention by the Emperor, which would not be traditionally appropriate. He also added that people in the Japanese Imperial Family had the choice to between staying in the family or not and said this meant the Emperor could choose to perform his duties in the family until his death, or leave earlier.

However, he admitted the law isn’t perfect.

“Honestly I think it’s really stupid that the current law insists the Emperor must serve until he dies, but I want it to be continued. The Emperor is the symbol of peace for Japanese society.”

Paving the way for Prince Naruhito

When it comes to the future of Japan’s Imperial Family, the youth of the country were traditional in their responses, hoping for the system of emperors to continue and paving the way for Emperor Akihito’s son, Prince Naruhito, to take his position. Eriko said:

“His son should take over because that is the way of emperors. Watching his end will be sad, but if his son does take over, the Emperor will feel easy about living the rest of his life.”

“His son should take over,” Satoko added confidently. “That’s the tradition. But to be honest, he’s not so mentally strong, like his father.”

Yuka agreed that Prince Naruhito should be titled Emperor after his father, but also express doubt over whether he would be able to fill Emperor Akihito’s shoes efficiently.

“The son of the Emperor has a clear vision about the future and is strong-willed like his father. I would like him to take over and make this country more peaceful. But the people need their emotional mainstay.

She concluded:

“Whether the Crown Prince could listen to the people and become their new ‘hope’ or not, that is the question.”