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Japanese Emperor Signals Wish To Abdicate Throne

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Japan today, Emperor Akihito made an extraordinary televised address to the country's citizens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AKIHITO: (Speaking Japanese).

SHAPIRO: Emperor Akihito wants to abdicate the throne. That has not happened in nearly 200 years. And under Japan's constitution, it is not legally allowed. Yuki Tatsumi is with the Stimson Center, a think tank here in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

YUKI TATSUMI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So this is only the second time this emperor has ever addressed the public on TV, the first being after the devastating tsunami in 2011. Explain what exactly he said today.

TATSUMI: So what he said in today's address is that he had tried his best to serve the country as a symbolic existence for the country of Japan in a way that he thought was the best way to go. But then his advanced age and the health problem that occurs with advanced age - that makes it difficult for him. So he doesn't explicitly say, I would step down or I would like to step down on such and such date, but he makes a strong suggestion.

SHAPIRO: He is 82 years old. Why would he stop short of saying explicitly that he wants to step down?

TATSUMI: For those of us who grew up in Japan, including myself, this is not a surprise. Japanese emperor is considered a very symbolic figure which has no political authority or political power to make policy decisions. And the way imperial family conducts its business is very detailed level determined by Imperial House Law. And because of this Imperial House Law, it's built on the premise that the change of emperor happens only when the emperor passes away.

SHAPIRO: And so even saying, I wish to retire, would be considered meddling in politics from this perspective.

TATSUMI: Potentially because it actually requires the revision of this Imperial Household Law and inserting a new clause, actually.

SHAPIRO: How is this emperor viewed by people in Japan? What stands out from his time on the throne?

TATSUMI: I think two things in my mind because I grew up in Japan. One is, he and his wife, Empress Michiko's, effort to bring the imperial family closer to the people. Before his reign, imperial family is a very distant ceremonial being that growing up as a school children in Japan, you would only hear about them at school ceremonies and very formal circumstances. And after his reign started, I would remember seeing more and more news clips of he and empress visiting disaster-hidden area, staying and talking to the people in the shelter for a long time.

In 2011 when Tokyo and (unintelligible) and the northern part of Japan was hit by triple disaster of earthquake and tsunami and nuclear meltdown, there was a rolling blackout probably for the first time in a post-war Japan, that certain part of Japan had to go through rolling blackout to conserve power because of nuclear meltdown. So he actually ordered his palace's power to be shut down during those time that his vicinity neighborhood going through the rolling blackout.

SHAPIRO: Is it your sense that there is real debate over whether the law will be changed to allow the emperor to retire, or is it just a question of now taking the necessary steps to make it happen?

TATSUMI: I think there are lot of sympathies toward this emperor when he says he wants to retire. But as you recall, this is a completely different zone, but when Pope Benedict XVI - when he said he wants to retire, remember those all kinds of debate that stirred up, the how should he be treated post-papacy and how he should be referred to and how, you know - whether he continues to get allowances from Vaticans - very similar debate will happen in Japan.

SHAPIRO: Yuki Tatsumi, thank you so much.

TATSUMI: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Yuki Tatsumi is a senior associate in the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a global affairs think tank here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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