TOKYO -- A year after Emperor Akihito publicly hinted at a desire to step down, the government is still working out not only the timing of the abdication, but also when it will be announced -- tricky questions that require juggling competing considerations.
Though Japanese law does not normally allow for abdication, the Diet passed legislation in June to permit it in this one case. The law stipulates that the handover must take place within three years of its promulgation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will determine the timing after consulting with the Imperial Household Council, which includes leaders from the three branches of government and members of the Imperial family.
"We must prepare properly to carry out the special law without letting anything slip through the cracks," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday. He cited the need for a plan to support the retired emperor as well as to get ready to change the name of the era marking the emperor's reign.
The government initially focused on a proposal to have Emperor Akihito step down and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, accede to the throne at the end of 2018, with the era name to change on Jan. 1, 2019. Beginning the new era at the start of the year would ensure that it matches up with the Western calendar, minimizing the impact on the public.
But the Imperial Household Agency is not keen on this idea, arguing that the emperor's busy schedule around that time leaves no room for succession and accession ceremonies.
A ceremony is held Dec. 23 for Emperor Akihito's birthday, followed two days later by one to mark the anniversary of the death of Emperor Taisho. Jan. 1 is especially busy, with New Year's rituals followed by reception ceremonies to greet well-wishers, including other Imperial family members, top government officials and ambassadors. A string of other New Year's events, such as greetings to the public and a traditional poetry reading, runs until mid-January.
A special ceremony will be held Jan. 7, 2019, to mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Emperor Hirohito. Conservatives -- a key support bloc for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- hope to see Emperor Akihito attend as emperor.
An alternative proposal would put abdication and succession at the end of March 2019, with the calendar switching over April 1, coinciding with the start of the new fiscal year. Scheduling the transition during what is typically a quieter period for the Imperial family would reduce the burden on the emperor and the crown prince.
An early start
The government must also decide when to announce the timing of the handover. The initial plan was to do so next summer, after the regular Diet session, but it could be moved up to this year.
The new era name is expected to be announced only a matter of months before the change. But providing a time frame for the succession well in advance would help give the public, time to prepare.
"A year would be enough," a senior government official said.
Political considerations are also likely to be at play. With the ruling Liberal Democratic Party set to hold a leadership election in September 2018 and the terms of lower-house lawmakers ending that December, Abe could well call a snap election before then. And if the prime minister seeks to revise the constitution, a referendum may be added to the agenda.
Some in the government argue that it would be best to get the abdication announcement out of the way before these important matters take up the government's time and energy.
The succession also ties into the budget, given that funding must be secured for the necessary ceremonies and reorganizing the Imperial Household Agency. The view is gaining ground that the Imperial Household Council should meet as early as this fall to discuss the matter, to ensure everything makes it into next fiscal year's draft budget when it is solidified in December.