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Japan's Emperor To Abdicate Throne For 1st Time In 2 Centuries


Japan is preparing for imperial pageantry - the sort that hasn't been seen in decades. Emperor Akihito is 85. He's going to abdicate the throne on Thursday, and his son will take his place. It is the first abdication in Japan in more than two centuries. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo, it raises questions about the country's ancient imperial system.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Emperor Akihito was born in 1933, two years after Japan invaded Manchuria in a prelude to World War II. Japan fought that war in the name of Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito. Mototsugu Akashi was a school classmate of the young Crown Prince Akihito. He says that Akihito was being groomed to become a tough military leader, but his wartime experiences turned him into a pacifist.

MOTOTSUGU AKASHI: (Through interpreter) That time produced in him strong feelings against war and its chaos. You could call it a hatred of war.

KUHN: Another influence was his junior high school teacher Elizabeth Vining, a Quaker from Philadelphia. Masao Oda was another of Akihito's classmates. He remembers how Ms. Vining gave all her students English names.

MASAO ODA: I was Eric.

KUHN: And Akihito was Jimmy. But Akihito, he says, wasn't having it.

ODA: So he stood up and rejected this name given by Mrs. Vining. Jimmy - I'm not a Jimmy. I'm the crown prince.

KUHN: Akihito became emperor in 1989, following his father's death. Akihito carved out a role for himself that included consoling victims of disasters, such as the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. He also expressed remorse for Japan's wartime aggression. Then, in 2016, Akihito addressed the nation in a televised message.


EMPEROR AKIHITO: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining," he said, "I'm worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being, as I've done until now." Akihito wanted to abdicate, and he implied that a modern emperor ought to be able to do that.

KOICHI NAKANO: What he sought to do is to really bring the Japanese imperial system to a soft landing, as it were.

KUHN: Koichi Nakano is a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.

NAKANO: To turn a new page from the wartime militarist past in which his father, the then-emperor, was really the divine figure for which so many Japanese died and killed.

KUHN: In 1947, Japan's U.S.-drafted post-war constitution reduced Hirohito to a powerless figurehead. It took sovereignty from the emperor and gave it to the people in order to prevent a return to militarism.

Nakano notes that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling party would like to turn the clock back, restoring some power both to the emperor and the military. And this, he says, has led to a simmering tension between the monarchy and the government. Akihito, he says...

NAKANO: Has, in some ways, become a surprising sort of democrat, a surprising pacifist, you know, who is not necessarily feeling comfortable with the government of the day.

KUHN: Japanese law still says that the emperor rules for life. Japan's parliament gave Akihito a one-off exemption, so the issue of whether future emperors can abdicate or not remains unsettled. Takeshi Hara, a political scientist at the Open University of Japan in Yokohama, argues that another big problem is that discussing the role of the emperor in public remains a taboo in Japan.

TAKESHI HARA: (Through interpreter) Even now, people still welcome the emperor like a living god. The emperor and empress try hard to talk to people, but people are not ready to talk to them as human beings.

KUHN: Meanwhile, the imperial family is running low on male heirs to the throne, so Japan must now debate whether or not to have empresses. Throughout its history, it's had eight of them so far. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.