TOKYO -- Discussion of paving the way for Emperor Akihito to step down looks likely to take up much of the Diet's time, potentially putting the brakes on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ambition to revise Japan's pacifist charter.
The government will form an expert panel to consider the abdication issue as early as September.
It's "not the sort of problem where you can see where things are going within a few months," an Abe aide said. A panel on female succession assembled in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi needed about 10 months to compile a report.
Given that the abdication issue will require even wider-ranging debate, "it'll take at least a year" to deal with, a top official in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said.
Some in the ruling coalition argue that this should be the government's highest priority, since the emperor's advanced age raises the risk that he could fall ill before the matter is resolved. And the public is unlikely to support anything else being put at the top of the agenda, others warn.
But the issue is intertwined with broader questions about the Imperial system as a whole, as well as about the constitution, which deals with the succession process. Once discussion begins, the task may consume substantial political energy, since widespread public support will be needed.
Rather than undertake the involved process of revising the Imperial House Law, some in government have proposed a quicker solution: enacting a special law to let the emperor step down in just this case. But this option would not sidestep the need for extensive work, a government insider argued, referring to the requirements of determining the retired emperor's status and changing other laws related to the Imperial household.
Abe had hoped to kick off discussion of revising the constitution at the extraordinary Diet session convening next month, now that legislators amenable to the idea make up a two-thirds majority of both houses. But taking on abdication likely would throw off the schedule.
"For now, I think [the Diet's constitution commissions] have no choice but to prioritize abdication over revising the constitution," a top official in the opposition Democratic Party said.
A leading LDP official recommended ensuring that the abdication discussion is clearly partitioned from the debate on altering the charter. Any commingling of the two could force to the back burner topics the administration initially planned to work on, such as an emergency powers clause.
The abdication issue also could interfere with any plans by Abe to dissolve the lower house for a snap election. A top government official stressed that dissolution is solely the prime minister's prerogative and that Abe's hands are not tied. But such a move could invite criticism if it forces the Diet to drop bills under debate. The parties also would need to figure out how to address the issue in their campaign platforms.
Rumors have circulated within the ruling coalition that Abe could disband the lower chamber late this year or at the start of next year's regular Diet session. But holding an election so soon after starting the abdication debate could be difficult.
Abe's second consecutive term as LDP leader ends in September 2018, and a third consecutive term is not currently permitted. The plan is to take a year to deal with abdication, and then tackle constitutional revision over the following year, an aide close to Abe said.