A religious studies scholar, citing the health of Crown Princess Masako, has stirred controversy by calling on Crown Prince Naruhito to abdicate his position as first in line to succeed Emperor Akihito.
In an article submitted to the March edition of the Shincho 45 monthly magazine, Tetsuo Yamaori, 81, said Naruhito should take his family away from the enormous pressure it is facing.
Some have said Yamaori's suggestion would never work under the current Imperial Household Law. Others say it is important to discuss the issue, even if it is a very delicate one.
In the original article, Yamaori touched on the fact that Masako has entered her 10th year of medical treatment and is taking an extended period of rest from official duties.
Naruhito’s family has played the role of a "symbolic family." It is what the people have sought as the public image of the imperial household.
In Yamaori's view, Masako’s condition shows that the role has become an excessive burden on the family.
Yamaori wrote that the people and media have directed "some concerns and rather excessive expectations" toward Naruhito's family.
“There is the possibility that the manner of viewing could someday change to one that is colder and less forgiving," he wrote.
Yamaori also defined the “modern family” as the image focusing more on the private side of the family that has been fostered since the end of World War II.
He proposed that Naruhito choose the modern family and declare his abdication as crown prince.
"I believe the time has come for the crown prince, Masako and their daughter, Princess Aiko, to choose how they want to spend the rest of their lives in a separate role," he wrote.
Yamaori concluded that Naruhito should turn over the post of crown prince to his younger brother, Prince Fumihito.
Although Yamaori has not talked to the media about his article, he agreed to an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, saying, “There is a need to consider the issue in a comprehensive manner from the viewpoint of the social sciences and humanities."
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Question: Why did you decide to write the article?
Yamaori: I have thought long and hard about the significance of the emperor from my standpoint as a religious studies scholar. In 2005, I presented my opinion at an advisory panel discussing the Imperial Household Law to allow women and imperial family offspring of female lineage to ascend the throne.
The central government last October announced its compilation of the main points of discussion in preparing for a review of the Imperial Household Law. But there has been no progress in such debate.
Perhaps because a sense of crisis and concern was deepening within me, I made a short comment about imperial succession in an interview that appeared in the Nov. 23, 2012, edition of the Shukan Asahi weekly magazine. The editorial staff of Shincho 45 read that interview and urged me to write an article for their magazine.
Q: What is your view of the circumstances surrounding Naruhito's family?
A: I am deeply pained by the medical treatment being undertaken by Masako. I mentioned abdication because of my perception of the crown prince's feelings.
Looking back at the criticism about the imperial family since the Heisei Era (from 1989) as well as the response made to the (2004) comment by Naruhito concerning a disregard for Masako's personality, the people and media have not always viewed the imperial family in warm terms, as I pointed out in my article. That is a much more serious problem.
Q: What do you mean?
A: In keeping in step with the colder and less forgiving view of the imperial family held by the people, it seems as though society itself has become colder and less forgiving. The distress felt by the imperial family, as symbolized by Naruhito's family, overlaps with our own concerns about an uncertain future.
There is the feeling that a peaceful age is about to end, when we consider the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear accident as well as the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the East China Sea.
I believe that such a mood of the times is connected at some deep point with the crisis facing the imperial family.
Q: Why do you believe that is so?
A: When we look back on history, somewhat strangely, the times of peace have seen a balance between the emperor's religious authority and actual political power. That can be said for the 250 years or so of the Edo Period (1603-1867) and the 68 years since the end of World War II.
When I exchanged letters on the pages of the Yomiuri Shimbun in 2001 with political scientist Takeshi Sasaki, I touched upon the thesis of a balance between religious authority and political power.
In response, Sasaki pointed out that a social mechanism that reproduces the polytheistic "peaceful coexistence" of different values has helped to maintain order, but if there is an excessive view that it is stagnating the state, there will emerge a hunger for a strong leader.
Q: Does that mean the current desire to have a strong leader represents a collapse of that balance you have been talking about?
A: For that very reason, efforts should be made to maintain a balance between religious authority and political power under a structure of the emperor as a symbol of the state.
We should not forget the lessons from before the end of World War II when efforts to make the emperor a despot in both religious and political terms led to catastrophe.
Q: What should we do?
A: Regarding the system of emperor as a symbol of the state that has stabilized society, everyone should think about the issue in a comprehensive manner in terms of history, culture, religion and law, while also considering the possibility of a review of the Imperial Household Law.
I submitted my article with the hope that it would push forward debate, if even by just a little.
Tetsuo Yamaori, 81, is professor emeritus at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies and National Museum of Japanese History.
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