Japan's Emperor Akihito, 82, hints that he wants to leave the throne
The Japanese emperor hinted that he wished to step down yesterday (Monday), in an unprecedented move that could result in the first abdication in the country's modern history and an overhaul of its imperial constitution.
In a rare televised address, Emperor Akihito told the nation he was concerned his age may make it difficult for him to carry out his duties and expressed his desire for an orderly succession.
The 82-year-old, who recently had treatment for heart surgery and prostate cancer, avoided making any explicit reference to abdication as he is forbidden from discussing politics.
The 10-minute speech marked his second televised address to the nation since ascending the throne in 1989 after the death of his father, Hirohito.
"Fortunately I am now in good health," he said. "But when I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become more difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state.
"As we are in the midst of a rapidly ageing society, I would like to talk to you today about what would be a desirable role of the emperor in a time when the emperor, too, becomes advanced in age," he added. The emperor's future has long been the subject of fervent speculation in the Japanese media. Last month the public broadcaster NHK reported that he wished to abdicate, citing palace sources.
If Akihito were allowed to abdicate, he would be the first Japanese emperor to give up the throne since Emperor Kokaku in 1817.
It would also require reforms of Japan's imperial system. The main legal obstacle would be a 19th century constitution which forbids abdication of the emperor - who represents the stability and continuity of the state - due to fears of political instability.
Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, said he would consider the emperor's comments "seriously".
"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," he said yesterday.
Akihito's successor would be Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, who is well respected but has rattled the Japanese establishment in the past with his criticisms of the monarchy. Prince Naruhito's only child is a daughter, Aiko, who is barred from the throne under Japan's male-only accession laws.
Opinion polls suggest the Japanese largely approve of Akihito's apparent desire to stand down and sympathise with his concerns over ill health and advanced age.
Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, a Japanese cellist, said he believed the emperor had the country's best interests at heart. He said: "He is always trying to be perfect and he always believes that he has to perform his duties fully. It is a very hard thing for him to admit he is not doing well."
Prof Isao Tokoro, of Kyoto Sangyo University, told NHK: "The emperor was so distressed by the fact (his father's death) had slowed down social activities that he has been thinking what can be done to make a transition smoother in the future."
Though Akihito has no political power, he has taken part in hundreds of public engagements and has sought to improve Japan's relationship with other Asian countries in the aftermath of the Second World War.