Panel eyes one-time law for Japanese Emperor Akihito's abdication

Emperor Akihito (top, centre) arriving at the opening ceremony of a Diet session in Tokyo last Friday. If he abdicates, he will be the first monarch to do so since 1817.
Emperor Akihito (top, centre) arriving at the opening ceremony of a Diet session in Tokyo last Friday. If he abdicates, he will be the first monarch to do so since 1817.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A government panel looking into how to revise Japan's laws to allow its Emperor to abdicate has issued a report in favour of a one-time law that applies to Emperor Akihito, even though the monarch is said to prefer a permanent law.

Issuing its report yesterday, the the panel cited 23 points to show why doing so could be problematic, including a difficulty in defining necessary conditions for abdication and potential political abuse.

For this reason, the panel said it preferred that the Diet debate the issue as and when the need arises for future monarchs, and doing so will "most accurately capture" the prevailing public opinion.

Doing so "involves a low level of risk because careful deliberations can be made in the Diet each time to reflect the will of the people and the situation at the time", it said, citing factors such as the age gap between the emperor and his successor.

A one-off arrangement would also prevent issues like an "arbitrary abdication" forced upon by power struggles, which led to the 1889 Meiji Constitution stipulating that emperors must rule until their death.

And it would be difficult to set criteria such as age under a permanent law, given longer lifespans.

But the panel also admits as a drawback that a special law means the issue of an emperor's advanced age will "continue to resurface".

The 13-page interim report was issued after the ninth meeting by the panel, convened after Emperor Akihito signalled his desire to step down last August over fears that his old age will impede him from conducting his official duties.

The six-member panel did not come to an explicit conclusion. The matter will next be discussed in the Diet and among the public, and a final report is due in March. A Bill is expected to be tabled in the Diet by early May.

Media reports have cited unnamed Imperial Household Agency sources as saying that it is looking at the Emperor's 85th birthday, on Dec 23 next year, as a likely date for him to cede the throne to his older son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said to favour a one-time special law, said yesterday: "This is an extremely grave issue that concerns the foundation of the country, its long history and its future. So, it must be thoroughly discussed."

While the Meiji-era laws were replaced by a United States-crafted pacifist Constitution that revised the status of the emperor from a demi-god to a "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people", the law forbidding abdication was untouched.

If and when Emperor Akihito abdicates, he will be the first monarch to do so since 1817.

To pave the way for his abdication, Japan will need to iron out issues such as the Emperor's postretirement title, duties and official residence.

It will also need to fix the name of the new era under Japan's imperial calendar - this year is the 29th year of the Heisei ("achieving peace") era, which began when Emperor Akihito took the throne.

For now, the monarch and his wife, Empress Michiko, 82, are still going about their duties, but with a lighter workload. They will make an official visit to Hanoi and Hue in Vietnam from Feb 28 to March 5, and a stopover in Bangkok on March 6 to pay their respects to the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October.

But they will, for the first time, skip the official annual memorial service on March 11 to mark the sixth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami disaster.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Panel eyes one-time law for Akihito's abdication'. Print Edition | Subscribe