A few days ago, Emperor Akihito of Japan suggested that he would like to step down from the throne and allow his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to take over. Japan’s “Chrysanthemum Throne” is the world’s longest running monarchy with a history stretching over 2700 years, and it remains an important source of Japanese identity. But no Japanese emperor has abdicated for 200 years, and since Japan is a constitutional monarchy, Parliament would need to change the law to allow the Emperor to do so. That would be a significant change for Japan.
Polls say that as many as 85% of Japanese citizens are sympathetic toward the Emperor’s wish. The Emperor is 82, thinking about his health, and like many normal citizens, probably would like to retire. Many can understand why an emperor in his 80s with a largely symbolic role would like to free himself from royal constraints and be able to walk the neighborhood to get a coffee and croissant. The New York Times recently quoted a Japanese citizen who put it as well as anyone: “We speak respectfully about the emperor, but arguably we use him like a slave . . . He’s our symbol, but as a person he doesn’t have human rights. We should recognize his rights.”
Reading those words does make one wonder why we have monarchies at all today. You may think of monarchies as charming anachronisms or as unnecessary economic burdens that perpetuate elitism. But no matter what, they’re not a very 21st century idea. If we were starting from scratch today, monarchy is not what we’d come up with.
The fascinating thing is that monarchies endure. It’s easy to forget that Norway, Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands are kingdoms. In Sweden, 70% of the people favor keeping their monarchy. In the Netherlands, 75% do. And the number of Britons favoring a republic over monarchy has seldom exceeded 20%. There must be a reason for all this.
While there is no hard evidence that monarchies are good for economies or general welfare, plenty have tried looking for it. Harry van Dalen, a Dutch economist, found way back in 2007 that having a royal head of state could add 0.8 to 1.0 points of GDP growth. More recently, CNBC reported that monarchies on average have better credit ratings. And it is true that monarchies generally do well on country wealth rankings.
Several years ago, NPR reported that monarchies represented half the top 30 countries in the UN’s ranking of global well-being, even though they make up only a quarter of the globe’s countries. They take up many of the spots in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s top 10 democracy rankings. They appear as 12 of the 20 least corrupt countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. They also rank highly in the UN’s World Happiness Report.
Of course, these are merely correlations, not evidence of causation (think of how many Scandinavian countries could top many of these lists).
On qualitative intangibles, it’s been pointed out that monarchies often function as brands and symbols of trust that attract international business. They create the stability where businesses can flourish. And though constitutional monarchs have no political authority, they can act as a check on the power of prime ministers and presidents. Indeed, one of the complications surrounding Emperor Akihito’s potential abdication is that he is an avowed pacifist who could temper Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s military ambitions.
More than anything, what citizens of monarchies seem to value is having an embodiment of national identity who stays above political disputes and keeps people unified. In the U.S., we have our Clinton and we have our Trump, but we have no king or queen who remains above the fray and reminds us of who we are and what we have in common.