Why It Matters

Japanese Emperor's legacy lies in soft power

Japanese Emperor Akihito (left) and his wife Empress Michiko wave to well-wishers as they leave the imperial villa in Hayama, in Kanagawa prefecture on July 14.PHOTO: AFP

Japanese Emperor Akihito apparently intends to retire, and the agency that oversees the royal family is said to be mooting revisions to the law to allow him to do so.

Talk of this desire last week also reignited calls to amend laws to allow female succession. The plan - significant in a country that has emphasised women empowerment and yet lacks female leaders in the Cabinet and workforce - was abandoned in 2006 after Prince Akishino, 50, brother of heir Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, had a son.

Kyodo News cited sources last Saturday clarifying that the Emperor "does not necessarily intend to step down early, but is prepared to abdicate if he is unable to fulfil his duties".

He is not believed to have any immediate health issues, although he has lamented that old age is catching up with him. As and when he retires, he will be the first Japanese emperor in about 200 years to give up the throne.


His father, the late Emperor Hirohito, had reigned from 1926 until his death in 1989, presiding over World War II. The post-war Constitution of 1947 stripped the Emperor of divine status and cast him as a "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people". Emperor Akihito is the first peacetime monarch.


Last year, he performed about 270 official duties, including meetings with foreign dignitaries.

He has also served to unite the country in times of crises, such as the Fukushima and Kumamoto earthquakes, and built Japan's soft power by trying to soothe wartime wounds with former foes - even as Japan's politics edges to the right. He has consistently expressed remorse over Japan's wartime actions, from a trip to China in 1992 to a speech last year to mark the 70th year of the end of the war.

The Emperor is well respected, and a sign of his legacy lies in how local media devoted space to editorials and quotes of ordinary people saying his wishes should be, and must be, respected.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Akihito's legacy lies in soft power'. Print Edition | Subscribe