TOKYO — Emperor Akihito is a man of few words. Japan’s American-written constitution designed it that way.
But the 81-year-old figurehead has increasingly found ways to skirt the constitutional limits on his role and has, in characteristically subtle language, appeared to voice his displeasure with the path that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is leading Japan down.
That thickly veiled criticism could be repeated this weekend, as Japan marks the 70th anniversary of its defeat in World War II.
Abe will issue a statement on Friday, and there is a great deal of anticipation, both here and in neighboring countries, about the level of remorse the conservative prime minister will show for Japan’s brutality during the war. Given that he is trying to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution and put the country on a more “normal” military footing, there have been fears that he will seek to water down previous official apologies.
But Emperor Akihito will deliver his annual statement on Saturday, the actual anniversary of the day his father, Hirohito, announced Japan’s surrender. Given his recent statements and his advancing age, some analysts think the emperor may again obliquely criticize Abe’s attempts at constitutional revision.
“I feel he’s trying to say as much as possible,” said Yasushi Kuno, a veteran journalist who covered the imperial family for decades. “The emperor is telling everyone to remember the war and the people who were killed one more time, because people’s memories of the war are fading fast.”
Takeshi Hara, a political scientist at Meiji Gakuin University who has written several books on the imperial system, agrees. “The emperor and the empress might not see the 80th anniversary,” he said. “I feel it’s possible that the emperor might say something that’s different from the usual phrases as his last message, something like a will.”
Akihito occupies a unique place in Japan.
His father, Hirohito, was the wartime emperor who surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, but was allowed to remain in place as the Americans installed a new order in Japan. That order involved a new constitution that turned the emperor into a figurehead who should hover above the political fray.
Akihito took over the Chrysanthemum Throne when Hirohito died in 1989, making him the only emperor to have been sworn in under Japan’s constitution. For that reason, he probably feels a particularly strong attachment to it, analysts say.
As the anniversary approaches, Akihito has appeared to register his concern about the prime minister and his goals — albeit in the most oblique way.
“It is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of our country,” Akihito said in his New Year’s address, referring to Japan’s invasion of northern China.
Then in June, at a state banquet for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, the emperor said, “We Japanese must long remember with a profound sense of remorse” the fierce battles between Japan and the United States in the Philippines during World War II.
This month, the Imperial Household Agency released a new audio recording of Hirohito’s radio address in which Japan unconditionally surrendered, as well as photos of the original records. Japanese newspapers reported that the emperor wanted the address to be shared with the public.
Akihito has something of a history of making remarks that are at odds with popular antagonism toward Japan’s neighbors. Shortly after taking the throne, he made apologetic remarks about Japan’s actions in China and later said that he felt close to Koreans, noting an ancestral link between the Japanese and Korean royalties.
Throughout his 26-year tenure, he has visited countries where fierce battles were fought during the war, most recently going to the Micronesian islands of Palau.
“It’s true that his journeys to commemorate the war dead in places like Palau, and his recent addresses, have made him appear as if he was criticizing the security bills Abe has been pushing,” said Hidehiko Kasahara, an imperial law expert at Keio University. “But simply talking about the importance of abiding by the constitution doesn’t violate the law, so he might modify his address [on Saturday] to stress that point.”
A spokesman for the Imperial Household Agency declined to comment.
As with central bank statements, even slight changes in wording can have an outsized impact, and a nuanced change in the emperor’s message could encourage Abe’s critics. Although he has no power, the emperor is widely respected in Japan, especially among older generations.
The Japanese press has been abuzz with conjecture about how repentant Abe will be in his statement. NHK, the public broadcaster that often presents the government line, reported this week that the prime minister will include the words “apology” and “aggression” in his statement.
Those words — along with “colonial rule” — were included in then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s statement in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the surrender, a document that is considered Japan’s strongest reckoning with its history.
There had been widespread speculation that Abe, the grandson of a postwar prime minister who thinks Japan has done enough apologizing, would try to distance the government from that statement. But recent events seem to have altered this course.
Abe’s attempts to reinterpret the war-renouncing part of the constitution have sparked vehement protests from Japanese who think pacifism has served Japan well, and some of the government’s own experts have declared the changes unconstitutional.
On the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the past week, Abe’s approach was sternly criticized by locals. And polls show Abe’s job approval rating has plummeted in recent months.
That has weighed on the prime minister, one aide said on the condition of anonymity because the statement is still being drafted. Abe will issue an apology “within a range that we feel comfortable with,” the aide said.
The Yomiuri Shimbun this week reported that “the statement will use expressions that can be perceived by neighbors that Japan apologizes.”
Still, the issue remains so sensitive that China and South Korea will not be placated by a half-hearted apology.
Urging Abe to uphold previous statements, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman this week said: “We hope that the Seoul-Tokyo ties will develop a virtuous circle and Japan can become a responsible member of the global community.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.