Japan's debate on how to revise laws to allow Emperor Akihito to step down could delay Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plans to reform the country's pacifist Constitution to give its military a larger role.
An expert panel will be formed as early as next month to look at new laws to allow the Emperor to abdicate, but local media quoted sources as saying the discussions, which will also take place in the Diet, will likely take a year because of their complexity. This meant Mr Abe's plans to revise the charter could be pushed back.
A close aide to Mr Abe was quoted by Nikkei Asian Review yesterday as saying this is "not the sort of problem where you can see where things are going within a few months".
The Straits Times understands that many in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) think the abdication issue should be top priority - given the monarch's revered status, the public might not be in favour of changes to the Constitution until it is resolved.
The 82-year-old had confessed on Monday his worries of not being able to fulfil his duties as he gets older. He also suggested, in a televised address to millions of Japanese for only the second time in his 28 years of reign, that a regency system was undesirable.
Japan experts like East Asian Institute's Dr Lam Peng Er noted that the Emperor's liberal view of history is "arguably out of sync" with the LDP's tilt to the right.
The Emperor has expressed remorse over Japan's wartime aggression and refused to visit the Yasukuni Shrine that honours Class A criminals among Japan's war dead, and some have interpreted his latest move as a form of "pushback".
The current Imperial Household Law, which does not have provisions for an abdication, will need to be revised. The process will likely take time - a panel on female succession in 2005 took 10 months to compile a report. The debate on female succession subsided after the Emperor's second son, Prince Akishino, had a son in 2006. Crown Prince Naruhito has a daughter.
The extensive abdication debate might delay Mr Abe's goal of revising the Constitution, in particular the war-renouncing Article 9.
He wants to do so during his term as LDP chief that is set to expire in September 2018. Current party rules bar him from a third consecutive term, though there is talk that the LDP might try to bend the rules. Mr Abe would only say on Tuesday: "We'll think carefully... about how we should proceed."
The debate on how to revise the Imperial Household Law, which has not been amended since 1949, might reopen the issue of female succession, opposed by traditionalists aligned to the LDP.
Some suggested that the government could propose a special one- time law to let Emperor Akihito step down. But the drawback, experts said, is this might be seen as "kicking the can down the road".
This must be balanced with fears that a permanent abdication system could destabilise the position of the Emperor as a symbol of the state. A phone survey of 1,008 people by Kyodo news agency, done after the Emperor's message, showed 87 per cent in favour of abdication. Some 76.6 per cent opposed an ad hoc law applying only to Emperor Akihito.