Japan’s Emperor Akihito anticipated and battled with challenges of age in final years of his era
Emperor Akihito, who for the past three decades has carved out a role as a symbol of the state, conducted his abdication ceremonies on Tuesday — nearly three years after indicating his wish to step down in a video message, broadcast in August 2016, based on the concern his age would make it difficult for him to fulfill his duties.
With constraints on his physical fitness becoming more visible over the years, the emperor’s abdication, which is expected to be an exception in the passage of Imperial succession, has sparked calls for revision of the system amid concerns his successors may face similar problems during their reign in the future.
While reflecting on his past in a speech delivered to the nation during a government-organized ceremony at the National Theater on Feb. 24 to mark the 30th year of his reign, the emperor accidentally skipped parts of his remarks.
As he was nearing the end of his speech, he repeated his words from the first, instead of the last page of the transcript he was referring to. Just as the mishap occurred Empress Michiko came to the rescue, helping the emperor put his notes in order. When the two had managed to find the missing page, the emperor turned to his wife and smiled, offering words of gratitude.
“Thank you so much,” he said.
The sight of the imperial couple helping each other helped soak away the tension that had filled the audience.
But that was not the only time the emperor has had difficulties keeping his notes in order.
An official with the Imperial Household Agency recalls a scene in which the emperor omitted an entire page of notes during a banquet for visiting dignitaries from Vietnam last May. On that day, no one helped him with the script.
So for Emperor Akihito’s February address, Empress Michiko had memorized the full text of her husband’s speech and was by his side on stage, prepared to offer assistance if needed.
During the ceremony, the emperor was seen several times with his eyes closed wearily. Those moments were broadcast live across Japan.
Until a few years ago, such mishaps would have been hard to imagine.
On one hand, fewer difficulties have been seen in the preparations for official events. But speculations have arisen that the emperor, who has been wearing a hearing aid, may have struggled sometimes to comprehend people’s words and has been caught numerous times going over the same lines.
The empress, who has remained by his side, has also been seen with fever or struggling with neck and shoulder pain.
“When (the mishaps) started to occur, there were many moments that were close (to being issues),” the Imperial Household Agency’s official said of the imperial couple. He added, however, that he had learned to accept the fact that the emperor is aging.
“Given how close to the people the emperor has remained, it would be dishonest if he tried to do everything perfectly.”
In recent years, the emperor has depended more on help from his assistants, who send him signals to proceed during official ceremonies and other events. Also, when traveling to the countryside, the emperor has tried not to overbook his schedule, especially during longer trips.
“But I’m glad the nation had a chance to see this side of the emperor — this is who he really is,” the official said.
Since the last ceremony to commemorate his reign, the emperor has remained out of the spotlight.
But the truth is the emperor had sensed his advancing age would hinder his reign, the Imperial Household Agency official noted.
“In the video message, he questioned whether he should retain his position even if he became unable to carry out his duties with all his strength and all his heart, and said that future emperors might face the same problem,” he recalled. “I wanted the nation to share that feeling of urgency.”
On Tuesday the emperor performed a set of ceremonies to mark the end of his reign, throughout which he has carved out a role as a symbol of the state.
But his abdication will be a one-time event, set out as an exception in a single-use law that will not allow Emperor Akihito’s successors to abdicate.
“If we expect the next emperor to embody his role as a symbol and carry out various duties, the environment and laws need to be amended to allow them to do so,” the official said. “It’s obvious that with age, there will be difficulties physically and mentally. We need to think about what’s necessary so that the sacrifices the Emperor has made throughout his entire life are not in vain.”