Japan cabinet approves bill to allow emperor to abdicate

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attend the annual spring garden party at the Akasaka Palace imperial garden in Tokyo, Japan.
PHOTO: REUTERS

Japan's cabinet approved a bill on Friday that would allow Emperor Akihito to step down, paving the way for the first abdication by a Japanese emperor in nearly two centuries.

The 83-year-old emperor, who has had heart surgery and prostate cancer treatment, said in rare public remarks last year he feared age might make it hard for him to fulfil his duties.

Akihito has sought to soothe the wounds at home and abroad of World War Two, which was fought in his father Hirohito's name, and to bring the imperial family closer to the Japanese people. He will be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito, 57.

The bill will be sent to parliament, where lawmakers are aiming to pass it before the current session ends next month. "The government hopes for the smooth passage of the legislation," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

Huge crowds cheer Japan emperor on 83rd birthday

  • The biggest crowds of his nearly three-decade reign thronged Japan's Imperial Palace on Friday to celebrate Emperor Akihito's 83rd birthday on what could be his last such appearance after expressing his desire to abdicate.
  • It was his first birthday since he announced in August that his advancing age and weakening health mean he may no longer be able to carry out his duties, setting the stage for Japan to prepare for an historic abdication.
  • The Imperial Palace said some 33,300 people - the biggest crowd since Akihito ascended to the throne in 1989 - attended his birthday address, waving small Japanese flags as crowds shouted "Banzai" or "Long live".
  • Flanked by Empress Michiko and other members of the royal household, the soft-spoken monarch greeted well-wishers from a glass-covered balcony at the palace, surrounded by stone walls and mossy moats.
  • "I wish you all health and happiness, and I pray the next year will be cheerful and peaceful," the emperor said in his address.
  • Deliberations over his retirement wish are under way in an advisory panel set up by Prime Minster Shinzo Abe in September to study a possible legal mechanism for a royal departure, which currently does not exist.

While no definite plan for an abdication has been confirmed, media have said it will likely take place in late 2018, which would mark nearly 30 full years on the throne for the emperor.

Abdication is not possible under current law and the last time an emperor stepped down was in 1817.

The bill is one-off legislation that would allow only Akihito to step down, with no provisions for future emperors.

It also makes no reference to the controversial issue of changing the system to allow women to inherit the throne, or to stay in the imperial family upon marriage, Japanese media said, although political parties are discussing a separate resolution on the topic.

Both steps have been suggested as ways to deal with a shortage of male heirs and a shrinking pool of royals generally, a problem thrust back into the limelight this week, with news that Akihito's eldest granddaughter will marry a commoner, after which she too must become a commoner.

There are only four heirs in the line of succession - Akihito's two middle-aged sons, Akihito's octogenarian brother, and Hisahito, the 10-year-old son of Akihito's younger son.The crown prince has one teenage daughter, Aiko, who cannot inherit the throne.

In 2005, with hopes for a male heir fading, then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi prepared to challenge a 1947 law limiting succession to male descendants of an emperor. But the proposal was shelved after Hisahito was born the next year.

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