SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Emperor Akihito of Japan presented an environmental prize yesterday, likely his final official duty before he abdicates. That happens Tuesday. He is the first Japanese emperor in two centuries to abdicate. Under Japan's U.S. drafted post-war constitution, the Emperor is a figurehead without political power. But the monarchy is still an important institution in Japan, and this abdication is likely to have a lasting impact. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Tokyo. Anthony, thanks so much for being with us.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Nice to join you, Scott.
SIMON: The emperor is 85. This has been planned for some time, right?
KUHN: Yeah. Three years ago the emperor said in an address to the public that his health is declining and he's having difficulty keeping up with his many ceremonial duties. So on Tuesday, Akihito will hold an abdication ceremony at the Imperial Palace. And the next day, now-Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend the throne and there'll be many rituals and ceremonies. He'll inherit a ceremonial sword and some official seals. There'll be a big procession in which he rides in an open-top Toyota limousine for the public to see. There'll be a banquet. Akihito and Naruhito will swap palaces and Akihito will live in retirement under the title of emperor emeritus.
SIMON: So there's a change in roles. How does it change the institution?
KUHN: Well, right now, Japanese law effectively says that the emperor rules for life, which is how it's always been. But two years ago, Japan's Parliament passed a law making a one-off exception and allowing Akihito to retire. So this will be the first time in modern history that the current and former emperors are alive at the same time. It happened many times actually in the pre-modern era. After the abdication, they face a problem, and that's that there'll only be three heirs to the throne left. There are not enough male heirs, and women are not allowed to take the throne and this is a big debate that they'll be facing about whether or not they want to have empresses in future.
SIMON: Well, what do the Japanese people think and say?
KUHN: The opinion polls are pretty clear. After the emperor said he wanted to abdicate, the polls showed that the vast majority of people support it. I think they see that letting an 85-year-old man retire is really just part of bringing the monarchy into the modern age. There are, however, conservative critics who see the emperor's authority being weakened as intolerable. You know, we say - people agree that Japan has become a pretty mature democracy but it's been less than a century since Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, told Japanese in 1946 that he's not a divine being. He's not a living god. And the post-war constitution took sovereignty away from the emperor and gave it to the people. So the Japanese people's transition from subjects to citizens is a pretty recent thing.
SIMON: And we have to note that Prime Minister Abe is in Washington, D.C., meeting with President Trump talking trade and notably North Korea just as the emperor, who is often described as a pacifist, is ending his reign.
KUHN: That's right. And President Trump will be the first foreign head of state to visit the new emperor. And this military alliance with the U.S. is key to Prime Minister Abe's vision of a stronger Japan that breaks free of its post-war constraints, including a ban on waging war. But this emperor is a pacifist partially because Japan fought in World War II in the emperor's name, and he does not want to see that ever happen again.
SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Tokyo. Thanks so much for being with us, Anthony.
KUHN: You're welcome, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF EAST WEST'S "COMIN' HOME BABY")
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