TOKYO -- The Japanese government is nearing a final decision to have Emperor Akihito step down at the end of April 2019, looking to hold the proceedings in a period of relative political calm rather than during elections or contentious budget discussions.
The Imperial House Council -- which includes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, senior lawmakers and Imperial family members -- will meet Dec. 1 to discuss the timing of the abdication, deciding between the two remaining options of April 30 and March 31. The date will be set by cabinet decision as early as Dec. 5.
Crown Prince Naruhito would accede to the throne the day after the emperor steps down, with his brother, Prince Akishino, becoming first in the line of succession.
"We'll do our utmost to ensure that His Majesty's abdication and His Imperial Highness's succession go off without a hitch," Abe told upper house lawmakers Wednesday.
The era name for the new monarch's reign is expected to be announced next year to give the public time to prepare for the change. A panel of experts will be formed to discuss name proposals, with Abe making the final decision.
The Imperial Household Agency will also ramp up preparations for the necessary ceremonies and organizational changes accompanying the first abdication in some two centuries. Issues to be discussed include whether abdication rites will be considered official or private.
The preliminary decision to hold the abdication in April -- rather than March as the Imperial Household Agency had expected -- seems to owe largely to Abe.
Special legislation letting the emperor step down stipulates that the date it takes effect -- in other words, the abdication timing -- will be set via government ordinance. Since ordinances are decided by the cabinet, this ultimately leaves the matter up to the prime minister.
Abe is apparently mindful of the political calendar around that time. March tends to see pitched battles in the Diet as budget deliberations enter the final stretch. And this period will be particularly busy in 2019 with quadrennial local elections stretching from late March into April. A March 31 abdication would take place with elections still pending in some areas.
All this will be over with at the end of April. The April 30 proposal would also position the proceedings during the Golden Week holidays -- with the abdication coming the day after Showa Day, the late Emperor Hirohito's birthday -- which could encourage a celebratory mood.
Abe may also hope for an economic boost, which could work in the ruling coalition's favor in the upper house election that summer as well as spur consumer spending ahead of the planned consumption tax hike that October.
The prime minister likely concluded that these benefits outweighed any confusion from choosing a date that does not sync up with a calendar or fiscal year.
An earlier proposal to have the emperor step down Dec. 31, 2018, and succession take place Jan. 1 ran into opposition from the Imperial Household Agency on the grounds that he and the crown prince would be too busy with ceremonial duties during the New Year's period. The prime minister's office opted against the idea out of consideration for these concerns.
Relieved as it was by this decision, the agency was bewildered by the push for an April abdication, about which it was apparently not informed in advance. "It's like a bolt from the blue," a senior official said.
That said, the agency does not expect the one-month delay to significantly hinder its preparations.