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Japanese Emperor: Too Old to Rule?


A screen displays Japanese Emperor Akihito delivering a speech in Tokyo, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.

A screen displays Japanese Emperor Akihito delivering a speech in Tokyo, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.


Japanese Emperor Akihito made a rare televised speech to his nation Monday. He told Japanese citizens that he is getting too old and weak to carry out his duties.

The media has reported that the 82-year-old’s health is failing. In recent years, doctors have operated on his heart, and treated him for cancer and bronchitis.

Emperor Akihito expressed concern that poor health will make it difficult for him to meet his responsibilities.

“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being, as I have done until now," the emperor said.

A 1947 law permits a new emperor to take power only when the one in power dies. Emperor Akihito did not ask Parliament to change the law, however.

Hosaka Yuji is a Japan expert at Sejong University in Seoul, South Korea. He said the emperor's speech was an appeal for the understanding of the Japanese people. Yuji said, “His message did not have any political impact nor diplomatic impact."

Public opinion studies in Japan show that 80 to 90 percent of people support changing the law so that the emperor can surrender his rule.

But some more traditional members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition have shown resistance to a discussion of the issue. Some experts suggest the officials fear that considering such a change might lead to similar action on proposals they strongly oppose. These include a proposal that women be permitted to inherit the title of empress.

Prime Minister Abe expressed sympathy for the emperor’s position.

"Considering the emperor's age and burden on his duties, I think about his mental fatigue. I think we should carefully think what is possible according to his message," Abe said.

Symbol of unity

Born in 1933, Akihito became emperor in 1989 after the death of his father, Hirohito.

Hirohito was considered a god by his people until Japan's defeat in World War II.

The occupying American forces took away the emperor's powers. They defined his new role as “a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.”

Akihito is a popular ruler, seen as more approachable than his father was. He married a commoner, the Empress Michiko.

The emperor does not take positions in Japanese politics. However, some recent statements by Emperor Akihito have seemed critical of Abe’s ruling coalition.

For example, Abe and his supporters have tried to downplay the Japanese military’s reported war crimes. Yet, last year, during the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Akihito questioned some Japanese actions during the war.

The emperor also has strongly defended Japan’s pacifist constitution. Abe supports an expansion of military power.

Crown Prince Naruhito

Akihito’s son and heir, 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, has already taken control of some of his father’s official duties.

The crown prince is expected to support his father’s positions in political policies.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Brian Padden reported this story for VOANews.com. Mehrnoush Karimian-Ainsworth adapted the report for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story


declining– v. to become worse in condition or quality

symbol – n. an action, object, event, person, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality

impact – n. a powerful or major influence or effect

inherit – v. to receive (money, property, etc.) from someone when that person dies

role – n. the part that someone has in a family, society, or other group

approachable – adj. easy to talk to or deal with

commoner – n. a person who is not a member of the nobility

downplay – v. to make (something) seem smaller or less important

pacifist – n. someone who believes that war and violence are wrong and who refuses to participate in or support a war

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