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Japan's Diet passes historic abdication bill

Akihito first emperor to step down in 200 years

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend a National Arbor Day ceremony in Uozu city, Toyama on May 28.

TOKYO -- The Japanese parliament on Friday passed and enacted a special-case law that will allow Emperor Akihito to hand over the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, in what will be Japan's first abdication in about 200 years.

The special law will apply to only the current emperor, but the government acknowledges it to serve as a precedent for future emperors. Abdication will occur within three years, according to the law. 

Work that led to the bill started when Emperor Akihito, now 83, made an atypical televised address to the public last August in which he expressed his desire to step down due to age and weakening health. The current Imperial House Law, which stipulates Imperial matters, allows only posthumous succession.

Enactment of the bill will make Emperor Akihito the first emperor to abdicate since Emperor Kokaku, who relinquished the throne in 1817. Historically, abdication of Japanese emperors was common, with about half the 125 of them stepping down.

The bill includes a supplementary resolution urging the government to consider allowing women to remain in the Imperial family after marriage, creating a female bloodline. Current law stipulates that women who wed commoners lose their royal status.

The resolution states that, "Issues related to ensuring stable Imperial succession and the creation of female-led Imperial branches are important matters that cannot be postponed." It calls for discussion to begin quickly after the law is implemented, followed by a prompt report to the Diet, Japan's parliament.

The government takes the position that Imperial succession and female-led Imperial branches are a different matter, with some in the government worrying that having women form new branches after marriage would let commoner husbands and their children join the Imperial family. They also are concerned that it would open the door to women assuming the throne.

Conservatives -- a key support bloc for Abe -- firmly oppose any change to the tradition of patrilineal inheritance, hence the prime minister's preference to keep succession out of the discussion.

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