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Japan ponders a 21st-century succession

First Imperial abdication in modern times raises a slew of practical issues

Emperor Akihito, second from right, and Crown Prince Naruhito, left, attend the annual spring garden party at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on April 20. (Photo by Kaisuke Ota)

TOKYO As Japan prepares for the first abdication of an emperor in two centuries, it is wrestling with the question of how to handle the handover in an era when the monarch is regarded as a symbol rather than a living god.

Emperor Akihito will step down on April 30, 2019, a date determined by a government council including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Imperial family members and senior lawmakers. Crown Prince Naruhito will accede to the throne the following day, at which point the current Heisei era will end and a new one, yet to be named, will begin.

"We will put forth every possible effort to ensure that the abdication of His Majesty the emperor and the accession of His Highness the crown prince to the Imperial throne take place without incident amidst the good wishes of the Japanese people," Abe said.

NO MODERN PRECEDENT The last Japanese emperor to relinquish the throne before death was Emperor Kokaku in 1817. The possibility of an emperor in modern times doing so had not been considered.

"His Majesty's abdication is a first in our constitutional history," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Dec. 1. As some examples of the issues to be considered, he cited the question of where the retired emperor will live and how he will be provided for after stepping down.

The Imperial Household Agency is combing through records of past abdications and working out how to adapt the proceedings in light of the modern roles of the emperor and his family.

The succession ceremonies will be "an important occasion -- they will show that the emperor's symbolic role has ended and that the crown prince has become the new emperor," a senior Imperial Household Agency official said. "We have to consider how to make them easy for the public to understand."

Akihito's accession in January 1989 took place after the death of his father, Hirohito, from a lengthy illness that had cast a pall over the country and its people. It was only in September that year, after the end of the mourning period, that a committee was set up to handle preparations for accession-related rites. Ceremonies to proclaim and celebrate the new emperor's enthronement were not held until November of the following year.

Akihito has apparently decided to step down before his death in part to avoid placing such a burden on the public. "When the emperor has ill health and his condition becomes serious, I am concerned that, as we have seen in the past, society comes to a standstill and people's lives are impacted in various ways," he said in an August 2016 address in which he indirectly expressed his wish to abdicate.

Akihito has consistently showed such consideration for the public in the course of fulfilling his duties as a symbol of the Japanese state. The Imperial Household Agency said in 2012 that steps would be taken to simplify customs surrounding the emperor's funeral, including cremation instead of burial -- a break with centuries of tradition -- and a smaller mausoleum. The agency also plans to streamline the succession ceremonies as much as possible, in accordance with the emperor's wishes.

"Times will change. I think that what is asked [of the Imperial family] will change with them," Prince Akishino, who will be first in the line of succession after his brother Naruhito assumes the throne, told reporters last month. "I believe that always has to be kept in mind."

A PERSONAL TOUCH With a trip last month to remote islands in the southwestern prefecture of Kagoshima, Akihito completed a second round of visits to all 47 of Japan's prefectures. His emphasis on direct contact with the public, even those on the fringes of Japanese society, has won him sympathy, respect and affection and firmly established the emperor's symbolic role.

Now, nearly 30 years into the Heisei era, the Imperial family must reckon with the changes that globalization and the internet have wrought in Japanese society. Naruhito, who has in the past talked about "new official duties that are in step with the times," has expressed his determination to follow his father's example.

"I would like to honor the wishes of His Majesty as I continue to devote my whole self to fulfilling my duties," he said in June ahead of a visit to Denmark.


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