Japanese Emperor Akihito, pictured in January, has occupied The Chrysanthemum Throne for 27 years © AFP
Emperor Akihito wants to end his reign and abdicate, public broadcaster NHK reported on Wednesday, a move that would be without precedent in modern Japan.
An abdication, which would come in the “next few years”, would be the first in Japan in two centuries. It would mean 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, the emperor’s eldest son, succeeding to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Although Emperor Akihito is 82, and has suffered from ill health in recent years, his abdication would still shock a country where he symbolises the stability and continuity of the Japanese state.
The Imperial Household Agency was not immediately available for comment. But NHK often transmits quasi-official information from the palace and is unlikely to speculate on a matter of such national significance.
NHK reported that the emperor is reluctant to reduce his official duties or rely on others to stand in for him as he grows older. He believes the role should be filled by somebody who can carry out its constitutional duties as a symbol of the state, NHK added.
There is no provision in Japan that allows an emperor to abdicate, so legislation would be needed to make it possible.
Increased lifespans mean that hereditary rulers often live into advanced old age, giving more reason for abdication. In 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated in favour of her son, while Pope Benedict also resigned that year.
Emperor Akihito acceded to the throne in 1989, the 125th in a line of succession that dates back to 660BC, according to genealogy published by the household agency.
Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo last year © Reuters
Although in earlier eras the emperor was often forced to abdicate, the last to do so was Emperor Kokaku in 1817, when real power in Japan still rested with the military shogunate.
Emperor Akihito has suffered various health problems, including a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2002, and heart problems last year. He suffered a bout of influenza in February.
However, earlier this year, the emperor and his wife Michiko made a state visit to the Philippines, where they paid respects to the war dead of both sides.
Although heavily constrained by his constitutional role, Emperor Akihito has sought to heal the wounds of Japan’s history, expressing last year his “deep remorse” on the 70th anniversary of the second world war.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in 1962 with the then two year-old crown prince Naruhito © AP
At his birthday press conference last year, the emperor hinted that his role was starting to weigh on him.
“I shall turn 82 on this birthday. I am beginning to feel my age, and there were times when I made some mistakes at events,” he said. At a couple of events last year, the emperor spoke at the wrong moment or had to check his schedule. “It is my intention to minimise such incidents by continuing to do the best I can when carrying out each and every event,” he added.
He spoke about the importance of correctly remembering history — a topic where the imperial family often seems at odds with Japan’s rightwing revisionists, even though in theory they revere the emperor above all else.
“With each passing year, we will have more and more Japanese who have never experienced war, but I believe having thorough knowledge about the last war and deepening our thoughts about the war is most important for the future of Japan,” he said.
Crown Prince Naruhito’s only child is a girl, Aiko, who cannot inherit under Japan’s male-only succession laws. At present, therefore, the second-in-line to the throne is Prince Hisahito, a child of Emperor Akihito’s younger son.