This post is based on a WSJ article and NHK news reports.
The Emperor of Japan has had several health issues, including a recent hospital stay for pneumonia. This past weekend, he was hospitalized again for an in-depth check of his heart. He will soon return for bypass surgery.
Over the past year, Emperor Akihito has been far more visible on the news and in the media. After the March 11th earthquake, he made a rare address, then later appeared with his wife to tour the damaged areas. I’ve spotted him several times on various TV programs as NHK covered him at various ceremonies.
His role, and that of the Imperial Family in post-WWII Japan is as a national symbol. The Emperor of Japan helps provide continuity and a national image, and after the destruction last March, his role has been all the more important. It seems, however, that his busier schedule has had a negative effect on his health.
The Emperor’s health is the latest in a series of news surrounding the Imperial Family lately. Its long been known that Japan has a growing geriatric population. The issue is now showing up as it refers to the shrinking Imperial Family and the status of its female members. With a shrinking house and uncertain future, the laws governing the institution of the Imperial Family are being examined.
Added to the succession worries, are the health of the Emperor. With all the expected appearances, and the importance of the Emperor’s role as a national icon in this period of rebuilding and economic worry for Japan, it is no wonder his family is concerned for him. His second son recently suggested a retirement age for the Emperor.
While the article names the thought as “unthinkable,” it wouldn’t be that odd if you look at Japanese history. It was quite common for Emperors to step down and allow younger sons (or daughters) to reign. While this was often a forced action by a powerful regent, it still happened. In modern times, the job of Emperor has been until death, but perhaps it is time for Japan to take a hard look at its laws concerning the imperial house. Americans essentially wrote the current laws, perhaps its time for Japan to change them to fit the current situation.
Allowing women to become Empress, creating a retirement age, and allowing more sons and daughters to retain their rights might be an effective way to move the Imperial Family into the next era.