Diet Enacts One-Time Law To Allow Emperor Akihito To Abdicate

The Diet enacted a special one-time law Friday that will allow Emperor Akihito, 83, to abdicate due to his advanced age, paving the way for Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, to rise to the Imperial throne. The special legislation will allow Emperor Akihito to step down in the first such abdication in about 200 years. Under the current law, the Imperial succession takes place only when an emperor dies.

The government will decide the timing of the abdication by issuing an ordinance. Media reports have said the government may be considering as early as the end of next year, which will also involve a change of the nengo (era name). Japan uses both the Western year and nengo for its calendar, and the current nengo year is Heisei 29, referring to the 29th year of the era of Emperor Akihito.

The government drew up the bill after Emperor Akihito expressed his wish to abdicate in a rare televised message aired last August, citing concerns over his advanced age and health condition. On Friday, the Upper House held a plenary session that passed the bill with support from almost all major parties in the chamber.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters after the enactment that the process to legalize the first abdication in modern Japan reminded him of the “significance” of the matter pertaining to “fundamentals of the nation, its long history and future.” “A stable succession of the Imperial throne is a momentous issue. The government will advance debate with respect for the resolution,” he said. The focus of public attention is now likely to shift to when the Imperial succession will take place, and whether Abe’s Cabinet will carry out any other reforms to the Imperial succession system. Concerns have recently grown over the sustainability of the male-only Imperial system, as the family now has only one young boy, Hisahito, 10.

The other seven unmarried children are all women, and six of them are in their 20s and 30s. Under the current Imperial Law, women are obliged to abandon their Imperial status if they marry a commoner. “The number of Imperial family members is decreasing because of the marriage of female members and other reasons,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a special Upper House session on the legislation on Wednesday.

“Considering the ages of the Imperial family members, this is an important problem that we cannot shelve,” he said. Many lawmakers and liberal intellectuals have called for legislation to allow a female to become a reigning empress and to establish a branch within the Imperial system even if she marries a commoner.

But Abe is reportedly reluctant to carry out such a drastic reform because many conservative lawmakers have called for the maintenance of the traditional male-only, paternal-line succession system. Abe himself “strongly prefers” the maintenance of the current system, a close aide to him said.

During Wednesday’s session, Suga said Abe’s Cabinet “will firmly maintain” the male-only, paternal-line succession system. The Imperial House Law says the Imperial throne shall be succeeded only “by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial lineage.” This means a successor should be a male whose father is from the Imperial family.

For example, even if Princess Aiko, 15, a granddaughter of Emperor Akihito and the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, marries a commoner and gives birth to a boy, the child would not be qualified as an Imperial successor because his father is from outside the Imperial family.

Liberal intellectuals and lawmakers have called for reform to allow even a female from the Imperial maternal line — or a female whose mother, not father, is from the Imperial family — to be allowed to rise to the Imperial throne, given the growing concerns over the sustainability of the Imperial succession and the gender equality guaranteed by the postwar Constitution.

Experts also say that the Imperial system will be extremely unstable in the long term without major reforms. According to a 2005 government panel of experts on the Imperial succession system, about half of Japan’s 125 emperors — though the first several were believed to be mythical — were children born to a concubine or their descendants.

This means the Imperial family, which is believed to be the world’s oldest monarchy, was maintained for hundreds of years thanks to the concubine system, which was effectively abolished by Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa (1901-1989). “It will be extremely difficult to maintain the stable Imperial succession” based on the male-only, paternal blood-line system, the 2005 report read.

Meanwhile some conservative intellectuals and politicians have argued that the male succession system be maintained by reviving the Imperial status of 11 branch families that were deprived of their privileges by reforms made after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

During Wednesday’s Upper House session, independent lawmaker and former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa argued that it would be a “very effective” reform to revive the Imperial status of those families. But the 2005 report argued that it is unclear how many of those descendants would agree to regain the Imperial status. The panel also pointed out that those families are very distant relatives of the Imperial family, who shared ancestors date back to about 600 years ago. “It is considered difficult to win the understanding of the nation” about reviving the Imperial status of those families, the report maintained.

Courtesy:The Japan Times

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