Japan parliament proposes one-off abdication law

A driver's licence shows the current era name under Emperor Akihito as Heisei printed in this photo taken Feb 3, 2017. The likely upcoming change in Japanese era name, which is linked to the reigning emperor, will affect official documents such as driver's licenses and health insurance cards. (Kyodo News photo)

TOKYO - Senior lawmakers on Friday presented Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a Diet proposal calling on the government to prepare one-off legislation to enable 83-year-old Emperor Akihito to abdicate.

After months of debate on whether to allow the abdication of emperors on a more permanent basis, ruling and opposition parties reached a compromise and decided to add a supplementary provision to the Imperial House Law so the legislation would serve as a precedent for future emperors.

Friday's move will pave the way for Emperor Akihito to hand over the Chrysanthemum throne to Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, in what would be the first succession from a living emperor in about 200 years.

After presenting the proposal to Mr Abe, House of Representatives speaker Tadamori Oshima quoted the prime minister as saying, "I take the consensus solemnly and will immediately begin working on a bill" based on the lawmakers' proposal.

Mr Abe also said an emperor's abdication is a "grave matter" that has consequences for the history of Japan, pledging to deal with it "thoroughly," according to the speaker.

The government plans to introduce the legislation to parliament in several weeks so it can be enacted during the current parliamentary session through mid-June.

With the imperial succession currently limited to male heirs amid the shrinking size of the imperial family, the Diet proposal calls for launching a debate on retaining princesses as imperial family members by establishing their branches even after they marry commoners.

The proposal calls for such a debate to take place "immediately" after the abdication law is enacted but does not say when such a debate should reach its conclusion.

Now that the proposal has been compiled by lawmakers, albeit with the lone dissent of a minor opposition party, an advisory panel to the government on the emperor's abdication will resume its own discussions Wednesday with a view to publishing its final report in late April.

The government is then expected to submit a one-off abdication bill to the Diet, possibly after the end of the holiday week in early May.

Although the timing of the abdication has not been formally decided, the government has in mind the emperor's 85th birthday on Dec 23, 2018, given his remarks in a video message last summer in which he said "in two years we will be welcoming the 30th year" of the country's current Heisei era, or 2018.

The government envisions not stating the abdication date in the special legislation bill but setting it by an ordinance.

The Diet's proposal paper urged the government to implement legal measures to allow the emperor to step down, citing widespread public understanding of his position following the video message in which he signalled his hope to retire due to his concern over his advanced age.

Currently, only posthumous succession is allowed as the Imperial House Law that sets out rules for imperial affairs lacks a provision regarding abdication.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Mr Abe, sought a one-off law as a revision to the Imperial House Law would be complex and time-consuming.

But the main opposition Democratic Party argued the imperial law should be amended as Emperor Akihito's abdication under such special legislation could go against the Constitution. Article 2 of the supreme law stipulates that matters of succession must follow the Imperial House Law.

The two sides reached a compromise of adding a supplementary provision to the Imperial House Law, which was included in the Diet's proposal paper, to make it a legal basis for the special law.

In Japan, a "gengo" era name remains in use for the length of an emperor's reign and changes in Japanese era names affect people's lives in various ways as calendars and official documents often designate years by era name, with or without reference to the Gregorian date.

The current Heisei era under Emperor Akihito began on Jan  8, 1989, a day after Emperor Hirohito, the father of the current emperor, died, with the era name approved by the Diet shortly after the death of the previous emperor.

With succession between Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito expected to take place on a predetermined date, the government is contemplating the idea of changing the era at the start of 2019 as changing era name in the middle of a year can complicate people's lives.

To give the public time to prepare for the era change, the government plans to announce the new era name at least several months before the envisioned abdication.

Back to top