Emperor Akihito’s Heart Surgery a Success, but Concerns for Monarchy Linger

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Toru Hanai / Reuters

Japan's Emperor Akihito speaks at a parliamentary session in Tokyo on Jan. 24, 2012

Japan’s 78-year-old Emperor Akihito underwent successful heart bypass surgery yesterday at the University of Tokyo Hospital. The procedure, which lasted less than six hours, was not an emergency; the Emperor’s team of doctors decided the angina patient should have the coronary artery bypass now to enjoy a better quality of life as he gets older.

The revered ceremonial head of state has not been in good health for nearly a decade. In 2003 he had surgery for prostate cancer, and in 2008 he suffered stress-related health problems. In 2009 the Imperial Household Agency said it would relax his duties, but in November 2011, he entered the hospital for fever and bronchitis for several weeks.

Emperor Akihito’s ongoing health problems have raised questions about succession law in the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world. Currently, Japan’s Imperial House Law states that a new Emperor will only take the throne when his father dies. Women are ineligible and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon: in 2005, when former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised the idea that birth order, not gender, be the determining factor for succession, his own Liberal Democratic Party heartily objected and the idea was shelved.

That leaves the small imperial family with a serious shortage of male heirs. After Crown Prince Naruhito, 51, and Prince Akishino, 46, 5-year-old Hisahito, Prince Akishino’s son, is the only male currently in the family who will be eligible to take over the throne for the next generation. “By the time [Hisahito] assumes the throne, he will be the imperial family,” Colin Jones, a law professor at Doshisha University, told Bloomberg.

In November talks began between the government and the Imperial Household Agency on whether princesses who marry commoners should be allowed to keep their status, thus increasing the number of children who are eligible for the Chrysanthemum Throne. The same month, after Emperor Akihito left the hospital, Prince Akishino called for a national conversation about whether the succession law should be changed to allow his father to retire before death and enjoy his old age free of official duty.

Emperor Akihito is held in high regard in Japan, having brought a more down-to-earth touch to a monarchy in which the Emperor had been thought of as a living god. After last year’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, Emperor Akihito made an unprecedented televised speech expressing his concern. He and his wife Empress Michiko visited temporary shelters on the devastated coast in April and opened the hot springs at one of their villas to disaster victims.