Reports of Akihito stepping down 'absolutely untrue'

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

Japan's Imperial Household Agency has rubbished reports that Emperor Akihito wishes to step down from his throne, with the denial adding intrigue to what would be an unprecedented move.

But both national broadcaster NHK and Kyodo news agency, which broke the story on Wednesday, have stood by their reports citing palace sources as saying the Emperor has expressed that wish.

The tango between the typically tight-lipped and traditional-minded agency and two of Japan's top news networks played out in public yesterday, over the purported desire of the 82-year-old monarch to step down if he cannot fully perform his duties.

This was the top story last night on NHK, which devoted plenty of air time to the need for the Imperial Household Law to be revised to allow him to step down.

The Emperor and his wife, Empress Michiko, returned to the Imperial Palace yesterday after spending a few days at the Hayama Imperial Villa in Kanagawa prefecture, and news pictures showed him waving and smiling at well-wishers.

"Arrangements are being made for an occasion where the Emperor can communicate his feelings widely," the report said, citing sources.

Kyodo's report yesterday afternoon was headlined: "Emperor expressed wish to fulfil duties or abdicate: government source."

It came after Vice-Grand Steward Shinichiro Yamamoto insisted late on Wednesday that the initial reports were "absolutely untrue".

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Grand Steward Noriyuki Kazaoka, who also denied the reports, said it "is possible the Emperor has had various thoughts as he engages in his public duties".

Any abdication by Japan's monarch will be the first since 1817. The Emperor now serves a ceremonial role as the "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people".

The Imperial Household Agency, which administers royal affairs, is known for maintaining an iron grip on the imperial family.

In 2004, Crown Prince Naruhito went public with his displeasure with the agency for stopping him and his wife from travelling overseas. It was later revealed that the agency had felt Crown Princess Masako's first duty was to produce an heir to the throne. The couple have a daughter, now 14, but only males are allowed to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne by law.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refrained from commenting on the issue yesterday, given its nature.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters that changes to the law are being drafted to "deal with the declining number of imperial family members", but they have "nothing to do with" abdication.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'Reports of Akihito stepping down 'absolutely untrue''. Print Edition | Subscribe