TOKYO—Japan’s ancient monarchy was in tumult Thursday, with the imperial household insisting its aging emperor had no plans to abdicate after reports he wanted to step aside.
The respected national broadcaster NHK—citing palace and other sources—said Wednesday that Akihito wanted to pass the throne to his son.
Any such abdication—the first since 1817—would be a severe jolt to a country where the 2,600-year-old royal family symbolizes stability and continuity.
Media watchers say NHK and Kyodo News, which separately carried a similar report, would be extremely careful before committing on such an explosive story.
But the Imperial Household Agency, the tradition-steeped government body that runs royal affairs, was categorical in its denial.
“It is absolutely not true,” Vice Grand Steward Shinichiro Yamamoto told reporters late Wednesday.
The emperor “has long refrained from discussing systematic issues out of consideration for his majesty’s constitutional position,” he told reporters.
The throne, which Japan claims to be one of the world’s oldest, is held in deep respect by much of the public, despite being largely stripped of its mystique and quasi-divine status in the aftermath of World War II.
Akihito’s father, Hirohito, in whose name Japan’s military campaigns of the 20th century were prosecuted, was treated as a living god until defeat in 1945.
While the role of emperor is now largely ceremonial, it remains intensely important to right wingers, especially because of the monarch’s position at the apex of the native Shinto religion.
Among their number is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who at the weekend scored an election win that may give him the momentum to soften Japan’s pacifist constitution.
An abdication—for which there is no modern legal precedent—could throw a spanner in the works, tying up legislators and preventing any such constitutional backsliding.
Hidehiko Kasahara, professor of politics at Keio University, noted that Akihito has made clear his ceremonial workload is getting harder to perform.
One of his sons in 2011 floated the idea of a retirement system for emperors after one of Akihito’s illnesses, and a weekly magazine in 2013 carried a report similar to the current wave of speculation.
The emperor, who has suffered from numerous health issues, including prostate cancer and heart problems, himself spoke late last year of his growing limitations.
He acknowledged making “mistakes” in his duties, which range from native Shinto religious ceremonies to visiting residents in regions hit by Japan’s frequent natural disasters.
Akihito may also be cognizant of the public awkwardness of his father’s death from cancer in 1989.