TOKYO — Five months after Emperor Akihito of Japan expressed his wish to retire, a government-appointed panel tacitly recommended on Monday that Parliament enact special legislation that would allow him to abdicate.
In its report, the six-member panel outlined the benefits and drawbacks of more permanent changes to the law governing the reigns of future emperors, but it ultimately signaled that a one-time provision would be preferable.
“This is an extremely serious issue for the fundamentals of this nation and its long history as well as its future,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after receiving the report. “So we have to thoroughly discuss it. I expect people’s understanding will be further deepened by the release of the discussion points.”
The Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Abe’s governing party, is expected to introduce a bill proposing a measure applying only to Emperor Akihito in Parliament in April.
Why does Parliament need to pass a law for the emperor to retire?
The Constitution designates the emperor, who was once revered as a god, as a symbol of the unity of the Japanese people. Although the Constitution outlines the emperor’s mostly ceremonial responsibilities — including officially appointing the prime minister, convening Parliament and receiving ambassadors — it leaves matters of succession to an Imperial Household Law passed by Parliament. The Constitution makes no mention of abdication, and no emperor has stepped down since Emperor Kokaku in 1817. The current Imperial Household Law has been in place since 1947.
Why does Emperor Akihito want to retire?
He is old, and he is tired. At 83, he is having trouble keeping up with his rigorous schedule of travel across Japan and internationally. Just last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, would visit Vietnam and Thailand next month. “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,” Emperor Akihito said in his video address to the nation in August.
The current emperor also witnessed the slow deterioration of his own father, Emperor Hirohito, who died in 1989, and presumably wants to spare his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, that period of limbo.
According to polls by the Japanese news media, public opinion is strongly on the emperor’s side.
Why doesn’t the government want to consider a more substantial, and permanent, revision to the law?
Given the emperor’s age and health — he has been treated for prostate cancer and underwent heart surgery five years ago — the government is concerned that a permanent overhaul of the succession law would take too long and might not be completed in time for Emperor Akihito to abdicate before his death.
Prime Minister Abe and his party are conservatives who are generally loath to change the Imperial Household Law, which retains elements that date from the Meiji era, in the 19th century. They worry that allowing future emperors to abdicate during their lifetimes might destabilize the monarchy or subject future emperors to political persuasion.
Conservatives also do not want to open up the law to further revisions, including the admission of female heirs to the throne.
“The Imperial Household Law limits succession of the throne through the male blood line,” said Takeshi Hara, a professor of modern history of Japanese politics and expert on the imperial system at the Open University of Japan. Conservatives, he said, “don’t want to change that.”
The main opposition in Parliament, the Democratic Party, favors a permanent revision of the law to allow emperors to abdicate as long as their heirs have reached adulthood, and to allow women to take the throne.
Why is the emperor so important in Japan?
Although the emperor is no longer regarded as a god, he is enormously respected as a symbol of national unity. Emperor Akihito is also personally popular because he and Empress Michiko have served as the nation’s consolers in chief. After the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the emperor appeared on television for the first time to urge people to “treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times.” The emperor and empress have since traveled extensively to meet with people in the disaster-stricken areas.
“This is the person who speaks for the Japanese people in times of distress,” said Sheila A. Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s not the elected officials or the prime ministers of the day that the Japanese people really look to in the moments when they are in trouble.”
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