Traditionalists in Japan who have long opposed the idea of a woman assuming the nation's Chrysanthemum Throne now fear that the emperor stepping down will damage the standing of the imperial system. Julian Ryall reports.
Polls conducted by the Japanese media since Emperor Akihito signaled his desire to relinquish the throne have shown that more than 80 percent of the public - and in some cases nearly 90 percent of the Japanese people - agree that he should be able to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne.
There are many in the more conservative circles of Japanese politics and society, however, who oppose the emperor's abdication on the grounds that it would reduce the standing of the imperial system and create a dangerous precedent for future generations of the world's longest-lived royal household.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not clearly stated where he stands on an abdication, which will require revisions to the existing law on the imperial family, but he is an unabashed conservative who has made it clear that he wishes to resurrect many of the components of Japan's pre-war constitution and once again elevate the position of emperor to the status of a near-god.
The emperor, who is 82 years old and has been treated for cancer, is widely seen as a liberal who opposes a return to the militaristic nation of the early decades of the last century and clearly dislikes the idea of Shinto being reinstated as the state religion.
And by giving only his second ever televised address on August 8, during which he expressed his desire to step down in favor of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, Akihito has clearly won public sympathy and simultaneously put one over on the conservatives who wish for him to retain his position until his death, just as his own father did.
"Many conservatives prefer the system that was in place before World War II, when there were several branches of the imperial family and as many as seven or eight princes who could step in to assume the position of emperor," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.
Shimada and other conservatives say that the Allies' intervention after Japan's defeat in 1945 - effectively lopping off the branches of the imperial tree to leave a single imperial line - was a mistake that has led to a constitutional crisis over succession.
Reserved for men
Crown Prince Naruhito has a daughter and women are not permitted by law to assume the Japanese throne. His younger brother has, however, a son, so the line has been preserved for at least one more generation.
"In our opinion, the law should be revised because there are not enough members of the imperial family to protect the imperial system," Shimada told DW.
To conservatives, the imperial family running out of heirs is simply unthinkable and the law as it stands at present erodes the emperor's status. Yet, they are still unwilling to countenance a woman to assume the throne, even though Japan has had empresses in the past.
"I am in no way against Japanese women and their opportunities and roles in society, but our system has historically been for a man to take the throne and we should be very careful about changing a system that has worked very well for such a long time," Shimada added.
Mustering a reply
There are reports that a number of members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are concerned about the longer-term impact the abdication of the present emperor will have on the institution of the imperial family and will call for the continuation of the terms of the Imperial Household Law as it was set down in 1889, under the Meiji Constitution.
Under that law, Hirobumi Ito, Japan's first prime minister, saw the emperor as "a pillar of the state" with control over sovereignty, but Ito's government devised a system by which politics would not be affected by the will of an emperor. During the discussions on the law, Ito also argued that no emperor would have the right to abdicate.
"The way the system was set up effectively reflects the understanding that the emperor is the symbol and living embodiment of the nation state of Japan," points out Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
The current heir to the throne is 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, who has gradually assumed monarchical responsibilities as Akihito cut back on his official duties
And although the emperor at present has no legal right to abdicate, by publicly stating his wish to step down and winning huge public support and sympathy, he has effectively left conservatives floundering for an effective reply.
"He has effectively said that he wants to resign and put the problems in the hands of the politicians," said Okumura. "And even though he has no power, he has taken that decision. And because he is widely respected by the public and they understand his personal situation, he has overwhelming support.
"Even the conservative media here have been quick to come out in support of his decision," he pointed out. The emperor may have enjoyed out-maneuvering nationalist factions in the government who now, Okumura believes, have no choice but to bow to his wishes.