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Gender issues hidden behind Emperor Akihito's speech

If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caters to public demand and revises the law to allow for an emperor to abdicate, it may cause more harm to his leadership than good.

Japan has seen heated debate about the emperor's role as a symbolic monarch after local media reported last month that Emperor Akihito was considering stepping down. Speculation heightened on Monday when the 82-year-old released a rare video message, expressing concern about how old age was impacting his ability to fulfill official duties, which was widely interpreted as a hint that he wished to retire.

Japan's constitution forbids an emperor to abdicate before death so legal changes will be necessary for Akihito's wish to materialize—something the public greatly supports. 86 percent of over 1,000 respondents believed abdication should be legalized, according to a recent Kyodo News survey.

But once Abe opens debate over revising imperial household law, citizens will use the change to target a greater issue at stake—gender equality—warned Kenneth Rouff, director of the center for Japanese studies at Portland State University.

"We can say with considerable certainty that people are going to raise the issue of why women aren't allowed to serve on the throne," he told CNBC on Tuesday.

Pedestrians walk past a screen broadcasting a speech by Japan's Emperor Akihito in Tokyo on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. Emperor Akihito, head of the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, said in a televised message he was concerned that it would become difficult for him to carry out his duties, weeks after reports that he had expressed a desire to abdicate
Yuya Shino | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Pedestrians walk past a screen broadcasting a speech by Japan's Emperor Akihito in Tokyo on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. Emperor Akihito, head of the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, said in a televised message he was concerned that it would become difficult for him to carry out his duties, weeks after reports that he had expressed a desire to abdicate

The matter would be a political blow for Abe and sharply contradict his 'womenomics' program, which calls for greater female participation in politics and the workforce.

Women are prevented from serving on the throne in order to maintain the country's supposed unbroken male bloodline, explained Rouff.

"The far right say if you have a women that gives birth to a child who becomes emperor, the line has passed through a woman, gets broken and Japan, as they know it, ceases to exist."

So while Abe may change the law to facilitate an emperor's wish to retire, he's unlikely to touch the gender issue as that would alienate his ultra-conservative base, Rouff noted.

Still, investors should cheer the fact that citizens are willing to rid the centuries-old Imperial law regarding abdication, said Ed Rogers, CEO and CIO at wealth management firm Rogers Investment Advisors.

"This is a change of absolutely historical proportions, it shows how the mindset of Japanese people has changed."

A change in mentality in areas concerning politics, employment and immigration is commonly cited as a key obstacle to Abenomics. Economists have long warned that Japan must increase immigration, embrace more foreigners in senior business roles, increase the share of women in the labor force, and abolish lifelong employment to increase productivity and consumption.

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