Issues remain over Emperor's post-abdication role in Japan

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, on April 24, 2014.


By THE JAPAN NEWS/YOMIURI Published: November 25, 2017

TOKYO — Speculation is spreading among Japanese government officials that "the Emperor would continue to be actively engaged in activities even after he abdicates" in the new role of "joko," which has been conceived for the Emperor's abdication.

The source of the speculation is the Imperial Household Agency's request to financial authorities and other government offices for the provision of "budgets and systems appropriate for a figure who has served as Emperor for 30 years."

If the request is accepted, the amount of "naiteihi" (expenses for inner court members) daily expenses for the joko and the number of "jokoshoku" staff members supporting his activities would be equivalent to those for the Emperor.

A source at the Prime Minister's Office said they have "no choice but to respect" the agency's request, and many government officials share this view. Jijushoku chamberlains, who support the Emperor and Empress and whose number stood at 79 as of April, are likely to be almost entirely shifted to jokoshoku roles supporting the joko.

One of the few indications of what the new role of joko may entail is a statement made by the agency's vice grand steward, Yasuhiko Nishimura, at a meeting of the Advisory Council on Easing the Burden of the Official Duties and Public Activities of the Emperor in January. Nishimura emphasized, "It is understood the Emperor will basically devolve all the acts he has performed as the symbol [of the state] to the new emperor."

However, there is no stipulation in the Constitution or any law on the Emperor's "official duties," such as visits to people in disaster-hit areas, to which he has attached importance. These duties have basically been performed based on the Emperor's will.

"What the joko's duties entail will also likely depend on the wishes of the Emperor," a government source said. Nishimura's statement is not believed to suggest that the Emperor would completely refrain, after abdication, from official activities that he has conducted throughout his reign.

The Prime Minister's Office secretly compiled an internal document in March last year, when it started behind-the-scenes coordination for the Emperor's abdication with the Imperial Household Agency. The document included a reference to concern over "whether a system that includes the joko, who used to be the symbol of the nation, alongside the Emperor, as the existing symbol of the nation, would fit the public's image of the Imperial family."

If "dual symbols" of emperor and joko emerge after abdication, it may shake the symbolic nature of the title.

Nevertheless, the government has virtually shelved discussions regarding the joko's activities. At the first meeting of the advisory council held in October last year, "the status and activities of the Emperor after his abdication" was listed as an item to be studied.

In its final report, however, the council merely supported Nishimura's view and did not state the nature of such activities. A council source recalled: "The matter was beyond our discretion. The Prime Minister's Office also was not able to handle it."

The Emperor has not explicitly expressed a view on his activities after abdication. However, based on a past remark by the Emperor on "connections with South Korea," there have been persistent rumors that he intends to make his first visit to South Korea after abdication, as an extension of his past visits to places where fierce battles were fought during World War II to pray for the war dead.

Even though the Emperor's official duties are essentially based on his will, prior considerations have included whether his actions "would have political impacts." But would the same considerations apply to the joko's activities? How should the government involve itself in the activities?

A number of issues still require in-depth deliberations. Discussions cannot be avoided on the role of joko, which will be introduced for the first time in the era of the emperor serving as a symbol of the state.

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