During his reign, Japanese Emperor Akihito, now 82, has done unprecedented things. He has addressed his subjects by means of a television twice. He has married a “commoner”, Michiko. He has travelled abroad extensively. And he has publicly expressed “feeling a certain kinship” with Korea, by acknowledging blood ties that go back fifteen centuries with the former royal house of the nearby peninsula. Nobody occupying the Chrysanthemum Throne had ever been quite so humble and relatable.

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Now, Akihito, Japan’s 125th emperor, is again making the country sit up and notice, as he pushes for permission to abdicate and live his remaining years with fewer official obligations. His health is frail, and he would like to step down as gracefully, and as slightly unconventionally, as he has reigned.

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“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duty as the symbol of the state with my whole being,” he said last week during his second ever televised address (the first was five years ago, a message of solidarity to Japan after the triple disaster that hit it in March 2011).

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But more than health, is the move his way of pushing back against the growing clout of the right under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party – a group that would like to restore Japan’s pre-war constitution and return the emperor to god-like status?

“Emperor Akihito and his family have been quietly suggesting the need for some system of abdication for a few years now, so this is not completely unexpected. But the timing is interesting,” says Corey Wallace, Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at Freie University in Berlin and a specialist in Japanese politics.

“It means conservatives have to deal head-on with various issues around the imperial system. They cannot sit on the sidelines and criticise others for meddling with and undermining the prestige of the imperial system. How this will play out will be very interesting, and could even lead to divisions within the conservative establishment.”

In his speech, Akihito was only capable of hinting at what his desires were. The indirectness is not some kind of intrinsic Japanese subtlety, but a very real constraint put on the emperor by the Japanese constitution, written by the American occupying forces in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in the second world war. After the catastrophic military adventurism that brought the Japanese troops to trample on much of Asia in the name of Akihito’s father, Hirohito, the US forces drafted the constitution and revised the role of the emperor significantly.

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The imperial institution was allowed to stay, but the constitution explicitly forbids the imperial family to engage in politics, or to have as prominent a religious role as before. Throughout the conflict, and during the mythological past of the imperial line, the emperor was considered semi-divine. But after two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hirohito was made to tell his subjects, in a dramatic radio message on August 15, 1945, that the war was lost and that everyone had to surrender their arms. To which he had to add that he was no longer a demigod, but fully human.

With this startling admission pronounced by the “Jewel Voice”, the occupying forces considered themselves satisfied: the presence of an imperial ruling family was considered necessary for the country’s stability, so Hirohito was spared all criminal investigation for his wartime role. Instead, he slipped into a ceremonial one that contributed to the national amnesia about the atrocities committed by the Japanese troops during the war, and his indifference to that past guaranteed that the extreme right-wing groups, the aggressive uyokudantai could go on worshipping him and the institution he embodied.

Hirohito died in 1989, and was succeeded by his son Akihito who, untainted by the war experience, took up his role as symbol of the state and, in a sense, father of the country in a manner that has won him the affection and respect of the vast majority of the Japanese population. Few wish to see him go, yet a recent survey established that 85 per cent of Japanese public opinion supports his desire to retire quietly, if he feels this is what he needs.

Many, though, have been pointing out an unexpected irony in all this: Akihito has long been described as Japan’s “pacifist emperor”, as opposed to his belligerent father. In the course of his travels around Asia, Akihito has repeatedly expressed remorse and deep sympathy for the victims of Japan’s wartime aggressions, even when the politicians in power have been more lukewarm in expressing regret. Abe, on the other hand, is post-war Japan’s most unabashedly militaristic prime minister, and he has long pushed to change Article 9 of the American-drafted constitution in order to scrap its non-aggression clause, and allow the country to rearm itself.

The American occupying forces had made sure that any future militaristic tendencies would be quashed by a provision in which Japan permanently renounced war as a means to settle international disputes. Amending the pacifist articles in the constitution is a highly controversial project, and Abe’s determination to do so has caused a ­timid­ return of interest in political protests in Japan. Yet, the opposition to this project, while vocal, has not been strong enough to prevent a re-election of Abe himself. Returned to power just this April, Abe has promised to tackle head-on the pesky Article 9, after already proceeding to emasculate it by allowing Japanese troops (normally dedicated to self-defence and civic protection) to take part in peace-keeping operations abroad.

But constitutional reforms take time in Japan maybe more so than elsewhere. And the urgency with which Akihito has been pleading for early dismissal from the heavy honour of being the official symbol of the state means that revising the constitution to allow him to step down would have to take precedence on the army’ role.

“In terms of the constitution issue, certainly it could be a distraction from Abe’s legislative programme and committee debate on changing the constitution. Whether the emperor intended it that way is another question. Ultimately, it is impossible for Abe to railroad through parliament a proposal to greatly change or eliminate Article 9 completely. Even if Abe prioritises Article 9 revision, it will take a lot of consensus building with the ruling parties, the opposition parties, and consideration of what the public will accept. This could take quite some time and the process might even outlast Abe’s administration,” observes Wallace.

In this fashion, the pacifist emperor would have found a last minute recourse to prevent, or at least severely delay, Abe’s determination to change the constitution and unshackle the military. Some think this might be the real reason behind Akihito’s push for retirement. Others see it as a welcome side-effect of a genuine desire to step aside.

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There are no provisions in the Japanese constitution for a serving emperor to stop ruling and abdicate. Because of the constitutional prohibition on getting involved in politics even by discussing it, Akihito is not allowed to ask for the law to be reformed to allow for his abdication, as that, too, would be seen as political interference. So all Akihito can do is hint, and count on the moral support of his subjects.

But if Akihito has been the quiet emperor of a fast changing Japan, his request to retire early might usher in significant changes or at least lay the ground for them by opening up for discussion some taboo topics. First among these, the one concerning the possibility of a woman ascending to the throne.

On this point, conservative Japan is adamant, and the constitution is on its side: the throne belongs to men, and men alone. If an emperor has no male offspring, then a successor is to be found among his brothers and their children, or, should that also fail, the children and grandchildren of the brothers of the previous emperor. Emperor Akihito has a son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, who famously married Masako, 52, a Harvard-educated career diplomat who has struggled severely to adapt to court life. And the two have an only child, a daughter, Princess Aiko. Which means that after Naruhito, the throne would go to Princess Aiko’s cousin, Hisahito, 9, the sole heir of Naruhito’s brother, Akishino.

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Not everybody thinks this is entirely fair, and while most Japanese support the imperial family and its current role, it is not clear how many would really oppose the crowning of an empress. After all, the founding myth of the Japanese empire itself involves a woman, Empress Amaterasu, the Sun

Goddess, the legendary ancestral mother of all Japanese who is supposed to have reigned around the 13th century BC,­ which would create as big a precedent as any.

“The public is generally accepting of a female emperor – even historically this is not unprecedented,” says Wallace. “There are even some in the political establishment who would not rule out this change. A previous prime minister, Koizumi, went all the way to proposing legislative change to allow this. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible – and in many ways the survival of the imperial family might depend on it if current male heir, Hisahito, does not have any male children.

“It might be tricky however, as the strongest conservatives are already a little upset with Abe who they think has compromised too much regarding historical issues such as Yasukuni visits, the comfort women issue with Korea, and statements on the war such as last year’s 70th anniversary statement. It will require considerable boldness on Abe’s part despite public acceptance for wholesale change to the imperial family system.”

Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer based in Hong Kong specialising in East Asia