Japan thrown into turmoil over reports emperor set to abdicate
The future of Japan's monarchy was thrown into confusion yesterday when the national broadcaster reported that Emperor Akihito was planning to abdicate after 27 years on the throne.
No Japanese monarch has abdicated for almost 200 years and the revered emperor symbolises national stability and continuity.
Yet both NHK, the national broadcaster, and Kyodo News, a major news agency, reported that Emperor Akihito (82) was planning to step down in the near future to make way for his son.
The Imperial Household Agency took the unusual step of issuing a categorical denial. "It is absolutely not true," said Shinichiro Yamamoto, the Vice Grand Steward. He added that the emperor has "long refrained" from discussing any issues of this kind out of "consideration for His Majesty's constitutional position".
But observers believe that neither NHK nor Kyodo News would have taken the risk of reporting such claims without strong sources.
With a history of 2,600 years, the Japanese monarchy is believed to be the oldest in the world. If the Emperor wanted to abdicate, the law would have to be revised in order to permit him to do so.
Emperor Akihito has been something of a reformer. He was the first Japanese monarch to marry a commoner and the first to visit China, publicly acknowledging that his country had inflicted "great suffering" on its neighbour during World War II.
But he has been in frail health in recent years. Crown Prince Naruhito (56) has assumed a more prominent role, often attending events on behalf of his father.