May 20, 2017 6:52 am JST

Japan's abdication bill stirs debate on Imperial future

Lawmakers could broach topic of women's role in succession

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- As a bill to let Japan's Emperor Akihito relinquish the throne heads to the Diet, lawmakers are seeking guidance from the government on how similar cases should be handled in the future and seizing the chance to consider expanding the role of women in the Imperial family.

The cabinet gave its stamp of approval Friday to a bill carving out a one-time exception to existing policies for Imperial succession, which address only the event of an emperor's death. The public "understands and sympathizes with" Emperor Akihito's "deep concern" about the difficulty of fulfilling his Imperial duties in old age, the proposal reads, emphasizing the unique circumstances of this case. The goal is to start debate on the bill this month and enact the law by the end of the current Diet session in June.

Shaping a precedent

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government acknowledges that the legislation establishes legal precedent for Imperial abdication -- a nod to the many lawmakers, mainly from opposition parties, who fought for such recognition in March when the Diet recommended a one-off legal tweak rather than a wholesale reformulation of succession policy.

Though the bill technically serves as "an exception to the Imperial House Law, as a practical matter it is a model for the future," said Masahiko Komura, vice president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

But the government is intent on restricting how this precedent can be applied, aiming to prevent future emperors from abdicating on a whim or being forced to cede the throne. The LDP is ready to treat testimony given by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and other Abe government officials during Diet deliberations as guidance for future cases.

Lawmakers from the leading opposition Democratic Party who are examining questions related to the Imperial family seek a wider approach. "We must confirm during deliberations that the abdication establishes precedent," they said in a statement Friday.

Fight in the margins

A resolution accompanying the main bill that aims to ensure stable Imperial succession could put in motion longer-lasting changes. Lawmakers will consider language calling for women in the royal family to be allowed to establish their own Imperial houses after marriage -- and thus retain their Imperial status -- a move supported by the Democratic Party.

As the family's numbers dwindle, a crisis of succession is growing more likely. Princess Mako, elder daughter of Prince Akishino, is to be engaged, and under current law she will lose her status once married. Of Japan's 19 Imperial family members, just eight are younger than 40, and seven among that group are unmarried women. If the law is not changed, Prince Hisahito, Mako's younger brother, could be the last remaining royal by the time he takes the throne.

Discussing "houses headed up by women is critical to ensuring stable Imperial succession," Sumio Mabuchi, a Democratic Party lawmaker involved in the succession debate, said Friday. The party supports calling for legal changes in the resolution, and seeks a conclusive decision on the matter a year down the road.

Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the LDP, was less outspoken on the issue. "Specialists are working on it," he said. "I would like to make a decision once the wording is set."

The conservative LDP resists the idea of Imperial houses led by women, which could open the door to female-line emperors or a woman on the throne. Abe himself is cautious about taking such a step.

Both parties want the resolution's content settled by the time the Diet's lower house passes the main abdication bill.

(Nikkei)

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