TOKYO • The Japanese government yesterday approved a one-off Bill allowing ageing Emperor Akihito to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne, in the first such abdication in two centuries.
The Bill will now be sent to Parliament for debate and is likely to get swift final approval, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet signed off on the legislation. Abdication must take place within three years of the Bill becoming law.
Earlier this year, it was reported that the 83-year-old emperor could step down at the end of December next year and be replaced by Crown Prince Naruhito on Jan 1, 2019.
Last August, Emperor Akihito publicly spoke about age and declining health - he has had surgery for prostate cancer and heart problems - which was interpreted as his wish to hand the crown to his elder son. But current Japanese law has no provision for abdication, so legislation has to be crafted to make it possible.
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The status of the emperor is highly sensitive in Japan, given its 20th-century history of war waged in the name of Emperor Akihito's father, Hirohito, who died in 1989.
Emperor Akihito has won plaudits for seizing upon the constitutionally prescribed role of national symbol and there is wide sympathy for his wish to retire. The soft-spoken emperor dedicated himself to deepening international understanding through visits overseas, sometimes in the face of protests.
3 Number of years within which abdication must take place once the Bill becomes law.
In 1992, he became the first Japanese monarch in living memory to visit China, where bitter memories of Japan's wartime invasion run deep. He also tried to smooth ties between Japan and South Korea, frayed by Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
Emperor Akihito became the first emperor to wed a commoner with his 1959 marriage to an industrialist's daughter, Michiko Shoda. The two worked to craft an image of a middle-class monarchy, with their children encouraged to live more like ordinary Japanese.
While a majority of the Japanese public supports a permanent law on abdication, they have expressed support for the current Bill for the sake of realising Emperor Akihito's smooth transition from the throne.
Some scholars and politicians, however, have argued that changing the law to allow any emperor to abdicate would risk Japan's monarchs becoming subject to political manipulation. The issue has also highlighted concerns over a potential succession crisis in one of the world's oldest monarchies.
Last month, a government panel issued a warning over the dwindling number of male heirs. Only men are allowed to become emperor under current law, though Japan has had empresses in past centuries.
Female members of the imperial family must give up their royal status when marrying a commoner, underscored by news this week that one of Emperor Akihito's granddaughters plans to marry her college sweetheart.
When Crown Prince Naruhito, who has only a daughter, ascends the throne, his younger brother, Prince Akishino, will be next in line, followed by his 10-year-old son, Prince Hisahito. After that, there are no more eligible males.
Many Japanese believe the issue can be resolved by allowing for female succession, but traditionalists vehemently oppose the idea.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
Emperor Akihito plans to abdicate: Japan media str.sg/4uoQ