May 19, 2017 11:00 pm JST

Japan's emperor comes closer to abdication

But matters of Imperial succession have lawmakers at odds

Japan's cabinet approved a bill for a law on May 19 to enable Emperor Akihito to abdicate his throne.

TOKYO -- Japan's cabinet on Friday approved a bill for a special-case law that will enable Emperor Akihito to abdicate his throne.

The law, however, will only apply to Emperor Akihito, who is 83.

The current Imperial House Law only allows for posthumous succession.

The Diet will start debating the special abdication bill next week, but the ruling coalition and opposition parties have already reached a general consensus on the legislation.

Passage is all but assured.

Yet there is more work for the Diet to do. After the the abdication bill is passed, lawmakers will have to go to work amending related laws. The goal is to allow for the Chrysanthemum throne to be handed down in 2018.

There is also the matter of a supplementary resolution, which is where debate heats up. The resolution is meant to ensure successors to the throne despite the Imperial family's dwindling number of male heirs.

The abdication law will have a long name that translates as "the special-case Imperial house law on the emperor's abdication." It will refer to the emperor as "Tenno" instead of "Tenno-heika," dropping the emperor-specific honorific.

While debating the abdication bill with the opposition, ruling coalition members had insisted on using the honorific to emphasize that the law makes an exception for this current emperor only, but conceded to the opposition's view that "emperor" without the honorific would be more suitable for the law, which sets a precedent.

The Imperial House Law, which governs matters related to the Imperial household, will also be amended to include new provisions stipulating that it and the special-case law form a unified whole.

The abdication law will also explain the circumstances that led to it. It will state that the emperor is "deeply worried" about potential difficulties in performing his official duties. It will also include a line saying, "The public understands the feelings of the emperor and is sympathetic to him."

Meanwhile, the bill does not refer to a video message that Emperor Akihito delivered last August in which he hinted at his readiness to abdicate. Doing so could cast the emperor as trying to spur the government to formulate a law.

Japan's Constitution prohibits the emperor from acting politically.

The timing of the emperor's abdication will be decided under an ordinance within three years after the law's promulgation. The bill stipulates that the prime minister will listen to the opinions of the heads of the legislative, executive and judicial branches as well as those of the Imperial family. The intention here is to prevent the arbitrary and forceful abdication of the emperor.

Debate on the bill is to officially get underway next week during a meeting of the Lower House Committee on Rules and Administration.

After lower house passage, the bill will be debated by a special upper house committee, with enactment expected during the current Diet session, which ends in the middle of next month.

"We are seeking to enact the bill as soon as possible," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday after the cabinet meeting.

As they discuss the bill, the ruling and opposition parties will also take up the wording of the resolution, meant to facilitate stable Imperial succession. The focus will be on whether to include specific measures, such as enabling princesses to create their own branches within the Imperial family after they marry commoners, or to specify how much time will be allowed for the government to examine the issue.

Princess Mako, of the Akishinomiya family, is scheduled to be engaged. The development could stimulate discussions on the creation of female Imperial branches. Japan's previous Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, proposed allowing this so the Imperial family could better cope with the small number of male heirs.

The opposition Democratic Party will propose creating female Imperial branches but hold off on drawing a conclusion until one year after the special-case law is enacted.

However, lawmakers of the dominant and conservative Liberal Democratic Party are cautious toward this proposal, fearing it could spark discussions about empresses or emperors whose mother, but not father, is an Imperial family member.

Another discussion, however, will crop up once the special-case law passes: How will the government choose the new era's name, and when will the name be announced?

(Nikkei)

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