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Emperor Akihito one step closer to abdication

It has been nearly a year since Emperor Akihito appeared on Japanese national television — a rare and auspicious event at the best of times — to announce his wish to abdicate the throne and leave imperial duties to his younger and more able-bodied son, Crown Prince Naruhito. Now, the Japanese National Diet is on the cusp of signing into law the bill that could make this possible.

The announcement was met with some degree of controversy, as the Imperial Household Act passed in 1947 during the American occupation did not allow for an emperor to voluntarily give up the throne. While the practice had been more common up until the Meiji Restoration, with the last emperor to abdicate being Emperor Kokaku in 1817; since the Meiji period, it has become more expected for Japanese emperors to reign until death in the Western manner. Emperor Akihito would thus be the first Emperor of Japan to abdicate for two hundred years. It would also draw to a close three decades of the Emperor’s reign over the Japanese state.

The Emperor requested, through discrete and indirect terms, the right to retire owing to his deteriorating health.

The bill allowing the Emperor to do so has now passed through the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the National Diet. It must now also pass through the upper chamber, the House of Councillors, before it will be enacted into law. It is expected that this will be achieved before the current session of parliament ends.

It is important to note that the bill is not a constitutional amendment, despite movements by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s towards constitutional reform. The Imperial Household Act and the 1947 Japanese Constitution will be left more or less intact, and the bill will instead be a one-shot piece of legislation that only allows the current Emperor to abdicate, with no provisions for his successors. This was done to prevent future Emperors from falling victim to political manipulation and pressure.

The bill also has attached a ticket calling for a renewed discussion on the status of women within the Imperial Family, namely in allowing them to keep their status in the line of succession upon marrying commoners, and their succession rights. This is hoped to increase the pool of male heirs, which is currently limited to exactly four members of the Imperial Household.

While opposed by traditionalists, including the current Prime Minister, this motion has received backing from the vast majority of Japanese.

It is hoped that the bill will pass swiftly through the National Diet and be enacted within short order. While no fixed date has yet been given, some within the government had anonymously reported expectations of the Emperor stepping down from the Chrysanthemum Throne next year, possibly in time for His Imperial Majesty’s 85th birthday.