On the same weekend that Alex Rodriguez, 41, announced his retirement from baseball, Japanese Emperor Akihito, 82, made an address to the Japanese nation in which he indicated his desire to abdicate–a wish current Japanese law has no provision to grant.
an (incredibly) short history
Japan was ruled by an hereditary line of emperors until the late 12th century, when it was removed from power by the royal family’s chief military adviser, the Shogun.
The shogunate persisted until Commodore Perry’s black ships sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1853, forcing Japan to end a long period of isolation. In the turmoil that followed, the shogun was deposed and the emperor restored to the throne as a semi-figurehead.
In the post-WWII Japanese constitution, the emperor was allowed to remain, in a purely symbolic political role. He (the constitution requires a male emperor) confirms the Prime Minister, for example, but he can only anoint the candidate that the legislature presents to him.
a cultural/religious role
I began studying the Japanese economy and stock market in 1986. To fight jet lag, every morning I would run from my hotel to the Imperial Palace, around the palace (two miles?) and back. Unlike the situation today, back then there were no Japanese runners for company, only one or two other odd foreigners. But at 6:30am there were always a dozen, sometimes many more Japanese citizens kneeling facing the palace and praying.
That’s because of the religious/cultural belief that when the emperor is crowned he mates with the sun god Amaterasu. His communion with the source of light makes him semi-divine; it also assures the good will of Amaterasu–and Japan’s exceptionalism as the land/race on earth that maintains a uniquely harmonious balance between dark and light.
the calendar, too
When he ascends to the throne, the emperor chooses a name for his reign. The traditional Japanese calendar is reset to be Year 1 of that era. Emperor Akihito chose “Heisei” (peace everywhere) in 1989. So 2016 = Heisei 28. His father, Hirohito, was the Showa (enlightened harmony) emperor.
Akihito and abdication
Twenty-five years ago, a speech like Akihito’s would have sent shock waves through Japan, and would doubtless have had a negative effect on the stock market. But while visitors to Tokyo still seek out the Palace Hotel because it’s the closest one can physically get to the Imperial Palace grounds, the morning worshipers have long since disappeared. Japanese citizens appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of changing the law to allow Akihito to abdicate. Bhe move will likely create as few economic ripples as the resignation of Pope Benedict did three years ago.