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Deposing the Tennō

At midnight tonight, the Tennō will be deposed.

Most western reports talk about his “abdication”, but legally, that is not what is happening. Legally, the Diet passed a law to depose the Tennō, and the Tennō signed it (not that he had any choice).

It is happening this way because, under the Constitution, the Tennō has no legal power at all, and may not influence any political or legislative events. The status of the Tennō is defined in the Constitution, and is thus one of the things that the Tennō himself may not legally influence in any way. He certainly may not decide to stop being Tennō — to abdicate. Nor may the heir decide not to become Tennō. (Well… Japanese law does recognise gender transitions, under strict conditions, and the Tennō must, legally, be male, so the heir could transition to being female to dodge it. I suspect that another solution would be found, however.)

In fact, the Cabinet legal office, in their interpretation of the Constitution, have said quite explicitly that the Imperial family do not have all the rights afforded to other citizens of Japan, and, for the most part, to foreign residents. In particular, I believe, they do not have the right to freely choose their occupation, nor, technically, the right to freely marry. There may also be legal restrictions on their freedom of speech and political participation; the current Imperial family are very careful not to intervene politically, but it may, in fact, be illegal for them to do so.

This is why the Tennō had to tread very carefully. In August 2016, he gave a superbly constructed speech in which he said absolutely nothing about ceasing to be Tennō. He merely observed that he was getting old (he was 82 at that point), and that he was concerned that he would not be physically or mentally able to perform his role as a symbol of the Japanese people for much longer. He also noted that performing the accession rites for a new Tennō at the same time as the funeral rites for the previous one put a lot of pressure on both the Imperial household, and the country.

Everyone got the point, and agreed that he should be allowed to retire. (Well, apart from some parts of the Shinto establishment, who appear to think that you should respect the will of the Tennō except when you disagree with him.) This led to discussions in and around the Diet, as people tried to work out a way to do this legally. Formally, none of this had anything to do with the Tennō’s speech, because he must not influence the political process. It was all a complete coincidence that people started looking into the problem at that point. Honest.

The final decision was to pass a special addition to the Imperial Household Law stating that the current Tennō would be deposed on a day fixed, within a certain range, by Cabinet order. The law passed unanimously, with merely formal discussion in the Diet.

So, in reality, the Tennō is abdicating, but the legal fiction is that he is being deposed. History is full of “abdications” that were not really voluntary, but this may be the first example of the reverse.

2 thoughts on “Deposing the Tennō”

  1. I don’t think “deposed” is the right word, as he will still hold a title, Emperor Emeritus. Perhaps we might say he was “graduated” to this title by the “will of the people.”

    It is an interesting question whether the Emperor Emeritus remains subject to the ambiguous constitutional restrictions on imperial freedom of speech. I suspect that although he has periodically suggested a desire to push the nation’s political discourse in a certain direction, he will not be testing his rights as Emperor Emeritus, because of the possibility of a lawsuit against him, which would cause his successor a significant loss of face.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I chose “deposed” based on the discussions of what, exactly, “taii” meant; in English, it only means that someone is no longer monarch, and they can certainly still have other titles. (Incidentally, “Emperor Emeritus” was not a very good choice of official translation for Jōkō, in my opinion.)

      I would be utterly astonished if the Tennō were to make any provocative comments as Jōkō; indeed, I will be surprised if he makes any public statements at all. I expect that he will do his best to fade into the background, to avoid creating any confusion over who the Tennō is.

      I’ve just watched the Abdication Ceremony on television. The Tennō stopped before leaving the room to turn back to face everyone, and then bowed before actually leaving. That, I think, captured an important part of why he has been such a good Tennō. I also suspect it was unscripted, because his attendants seemed to be caught slightly by surprise.

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