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Japanese emperor's abdication: 6 things to know

Protocol surrounding Imperial succession changes for the first time in 200 years

Japan's Emperor Akihito, left, and Empress Michiko

TOKYO -- In less than a year, Japan's Emperor Akihito will relinquish the throne to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito. The abdication will mark the end of the Heisei era, which endured for more than 30 years. To minimize the impact on people's lives, the government will announce the name of the next Imperial era on April 1, 2019, a month before the crown prince becomes emperor.

Why the emperor decided to step aside

During the Meiji era, it was stipulated that emperors reign until death. But Emperor Akihito's concerns over his health caused him to rethink the tradition.

"When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now," he informed the nation in a prerecorded video address that aired on August 7, 2016.

Long before the video address, the emperor is believed to have confided to close aids his intent to step aside while still in reasonably good health. 

But even after surgery for prostate cancer in 2003, Emperor Akihito has continued to fulfill his duties both at home and abroad, including visits to areas hit by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. However, the emperor's age seems to have finally caught up with him, making it increasingly difficult for him to carry on.

After the video address, the government began preparing for the abdication, which included consultations with historians and constitutional scholars in October 2016 about how to handle the process. By December, the experts had agreed in principal on a one-time law allowing for abdication.

People in Tokyo watch as Emperor Akihito addresses the country in a prerecorded message on August 7, 2016.

In March 2017, the Diet -- Japan's national legislature -- decided on a bill that would let the emperor pass the throne to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito. The law was approved by the cabinet in May, then after deliberation by both houses of the Diet, enacted in June.

Why April 30, 2019 was chosen for the abdication

Some experts opposed the abdication date, having felt that a more noteworthy one, like the first day of the year or the start of the fiscal year on April 1, would make for a more memorable occasion.

The prime minister's office is believed to have wanted both the enthronement and change of era to occur on Jan. 1, 2019. But the Imperial Household Agency had reservations, citing Emperor Akihito's tight schedule, including imperial rituals and the Ceremony of New Year Reception on New Year's Day. The agency also insisted that the thirtieth anniversary of Emperor Hirohito's death on Jan. 7, 2019 be observed during Emperor Akihito's reign.

Instead, the agency quietly proposed that the emperor abdicate on March 31, 2019, with the crown prince ascending the throne the day after on April 1. However, the prime minister's office objected, explaining that political activities surrounding local elections held in April 2019 would mean that the handover would not occur in a "quiet environment." Also, tying the Imperial transition to the start of a new fiscal year would inconvenience the public, as many people change residences then.

As a result, in December 2017, most of the Imperial Household Council, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, agreed that the transition should occur at the end of April 2019: Emperor Akihito would step down on April 30, 2019 with Crown Prince Naruhito ascending the throne the next day.

"I hope that Emperor Akihito can celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his enthronement on Jan. 7, 2019 [while still reigning]. Many people move in early April, and nationwide local elections are scheduled for April," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

How the abdication changes the Imperial house

The law allowing Emperor Akihito's abdication defines his retirement title as joko and Empress Michiko's as jokogo. Although the former emperor will retain his Imperial status and still be referred to as heika, or "His Majesty," he will cease performing official duties.

Crown Prince Naruhito's ascension will put Prince Fumihito, the emperor's second son, first in line to the throne with the title of koshi. He will be treated similar to the crown prince and his allowance will triple.

Akishino is expected to take over Naruhito's current official duties, the details of which the Imperial Household Agency is now ironing out.

The succession will leave only three heirs to the throne: the emperor's younger brother Prince Hitachi; Naruhito's younger brother Akishino; and Prince Hisahito, Akishino's only son. 

Should more female family members relinquish their royal status upon marriage to a commoner, as stipulated by law, it will be more difficult for the Imperial family to carry out official activities. 

Hence, the law includes a non-binding resolution urging the government to promptly consider ways to ensure a stable Imperial succession after Emperor Akihito abdicates, including creating a female lineage

How the abdication concerns Japan

Since the Meiji era began in 1868, a provision states that, in order to prevent dual authority, an emperor must die before an heir succeeds to the throne. This will be the first time in modern Japanese history that the new and former emperors are alive at the same time. 

Japan's constitution bars the emperor from politics and defines his status as the symbol of the state. Still, concerns remain over potential dual authority, with discussions underway about how to prevent this.

Although the retired emperor and empress will retain their current living expenses, security and transportation, their functions will change dramatically. The Imperial Household Agency said the Emperor Akihito has already signaled his intent to hand over all duties to the new emperor, so he may not even attend the succession ceremony.

How the Imperial living arrangements change

Their post-abdication residence will be Togu Palace on the Akasaka Estate in Tokyo, the current residence of the crown prince and his family. The palace will be renamed Sento Imperial Palace, which means "residence of the joko."

The new emperor and his family will move to the Imperial Palace, where the Imperial couple currently resides.

What ceremonies are scheduled

On the day the emperor steps aside, the first ceremony marking an emperor's abdication since Japan adopted a constitutional government will be held at the Imperial Palace's Seiden-Matsu-no-Ma, a room reserved for events of supreme importance. The prime minister is expected to give a speech outlining the reason for the abdication while expressing his gratitude to Emperor Akihito. This will be followed by the emperor's final address from the throne.

The next day will be the handover ceremony. It will start with the emperor passing to the crown prince a mirror and the jewel of the Three Sacred Treasures, both of which have been handed down over generations of emperors. The crown prince will also receive the privy and state seals -- the former used for official duties and the latter the official state seal.

The new emperor will then make his first address before the prime minister, speaker of the House of Representatives, president of the House of Councillors and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, among others.

During the address, the new emperor will pledge to protect the constitution and perform his duties as prescribed therein. He will also wish for the country's further prosperity, world peace and the welfare of humanity.

As provided by the constitution, there will also be a separate enthronement ceremony on Oct. 22, 2019.

During his own ceremony, Emperor Akihito, clad in traditional clothes, declared his ascension to the throne in front of about 2,200 Japanese and overseas dignitaries. He then rode in a convertible along a 4.7km procession from the Imperial Palace to his former residence at Akasaka Estate, where he hosted a banquet featuring a number of dignitaries.

In November 2019, the new emperor will perform a religious rite, praying for peace and wealth for the state and citizenry. It will be billed as an Imperial family event in accordance with Japan's separation of religion and state.

This fall, well before the handover, the government will form a committee chaired by the prime minister to flesh out details of the ceremonies. It will also set up a body headed by the chief cabinet secretary to oversee preparations. 

The government aims to model next year's ceremonies on the previous handover in 1989, but on a smaller scale. There will be fewer guests and events to keep costs down and lessen the workload on the aging emperor, whose own ascension featured seven banquets held over four days for about 2,900 people. The event cost roughly 12.3 billion yen ($110 million) and drew criticism for being too extravagant.

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