The Pope Was Allowed to Retire. Why Not the Emperor of Japan?

It has been three years since Pope Benedict retired, to be succeeded by the dynamic Pope Francis. In the few years since, European kings and queens have abdicated in favor of their sons, including Carlos of Spain, Albert of Belgium, Beatrice of the Netherlands, and also the Emir of Qatar. But the Japanese government was recently thrown into a tizzy when Emperor Akihito saw fit to suggest that his health no longer permits him to do his job with the vigor it deserves, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, is waiting in the wings.

I was visiting Tokyo 28 years ago when Akihito's father, Hirohito, was terminally ill. The Japanese news media, including an array of television trucks, were stationed in the parking lot of the Imperial Palace awaiting word of his passing. He was 87 years old, and a frail shadow of the man on horseback in wartime Japan, or the American ally who visited Disneyland in 1975. He gave rare interviews to American reporters--I was among them--before that trip. It began with a very limp handshake, the microphone had to be hidden in a flower arrangement, and it was hard to detect a sound bite in what he was schooled to say.

Abdication of Japanese emperors was no big deal before the 19th century, but the practice stopped when Japan opened to the West in what became known as the era of Emperor Meiji. The post-World War II Japanese constitution, adopted under American tutelage, had no provision recognizing the possibility of retirement. Therefore, no laws were passed relating to abdication, and Parliament would have to enact such a law now. But the current Parliament has more than its share of social conservatives who would have to be brought aboard, and Prime Minister Abe already has his hands full with controversial economic and security issues.

Which means that making the Emperor's retirement legal may fall victim to legislative gridlock, or that the prime minister won't feel confident enough even to bring it up, delaying until after the Emperor's illnesses become terminal.

There's another wrinkle for future reference. Naruhito has no sons, just one daughter. His younger brother had two daughters, and then finally, a son. It would be a major brouhaha to suggest that, when Naruhito reaches old age, Japan should have a female ruler in waiting, however powerless a figurehead Japan's head of state now is, rather than Naruhito's nephew.

Never mind that the Abe government is taking measures to encourage women to work after they marry, including provision of more child care. Given the Hobson's choice, Japan would rather see women workers than immigrants. But there isn't much Abe can do about the reluctance of Japanese husbands to help around the house that motivates Japanese young women not to marry in the first place.

And Tokyo has just elected aa its governor a woman for the first time. Yuriko Koike, a strong-willed politician won in a landslide. She was a television news anchor before running for Parliament, and served as minister of environment and defense. She is a member of Abe's conservative party, though she ran is an independent against the party's official candidate for governor, and even more conservative members of the local Tokyo assembly pose an obstacle course to her getting anything done.

Still, there's talk that, if she presides successfully over the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, she might be a prospect for prime minister of Japan. But a Japanese version of a Margaret Thatcher, or a Theresa May, bowing to an Empress a la Queen Elizabeth, is rather fanciful, even though Emperor or Queen is now no more than a symbol of a long-lived nation.