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2014 Royal visit When the Swiss met Japan’s Emperor in waiting

The Japanese emperor has strongly indicated that he wants to retire, in a rare video address to the public on Monday. It’s put the Crown Prince Naruhito into the spotlight, a man who the Swiss already got to know back in 2014 when he paid a visit to Bern.

Akihito’s son came to Switzerland to mark 150 years of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Japan. He was shown around the city by Bern’s Mayor, Alexander Tschäppät.

The Swiss press at the time remarked that it would have been a welcome break for Naruhito, whose public appearances are normally highly controlled, involving little interaction with ordinary people.

The role of Emperor in Japan is symbolic, but an abdication would be a dramatic change for Japanese society. Emperor Akihito has not explicitly said that he will retire, but did state he was “worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now”. He has already received treatment for heart problems and cancer.

A change in the law?

It is written in law that the Emperor continues until death. If parliament changed the law, it could see 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, who shares his father’s belief in keeping the Emperor and monarchy’s role non-political, stepping into the position.

The topic has been under discussion by Japanese news outlets in recent months. In July, the Nihon Keizai newspaper ran a poll where 77% of respondents said that he should be able to step down from the role before his death and that the system should be changed to enable this.

In the address on Monday, Emperor Akihito said that his health and age were major factors in current concerns about how he should continue in his role. In the 11-minute long video clip, which is only the second such video statement the Emperor has ever made (the first was in 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami), the 82-year-old made clear that this is his personal view.

He continued: “I think it is not possible to continue reducing perpetually the Emperor's acts in matters of state and his duties as the symbol of the State” due to ill health and ageing. He stressed that a major concern was society coming to a “standstill”, and commented that it had done previously, when months of “heavy mourning” take place after a death.

“It occurs to me from time to time to wonder whether it is possible to prevent such a situation.”

(Pictures: Christoph Balsiger,; text: Jo Fahy)

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