Emperor Akihito plans to abdicate within a few years, a government source said Wednesday.
The 82-year-old Emperor is still active but in May the Imperial Household Agency said some of his official duties would be cut back.
The source said the Emperor has been speaking about his intentions to people close to him for at least a year. This does not mean, the source added, that the Emperor has any immediate health concerns.
“Someone who can fulfill those duties should take the position,” the Emperor told an Imperial Household Agency official, according to a report by NHK.
But Shinichiro Yamamoto, a senior official at the agency, denied such a report.
It would be the first abdication of a Japanese emperor in 200 years.
The last emperor to abdicate was Emperor Kokaku in 1817, in the later part of the Edo Period (1603-1868).
The source added, the Imperial Household Law may need to be revised to allow the abdication to take place.
The Emperor’s intention has been accepted by Empress Michiko and by his sons, Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino, NHK said, quoting an Imperial Household Agency source.
Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, is the heir apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne. He studied at Britain’s Oxford University and is married to Crown Princess Masako, who had a career as a diplomat before they married.
They have one daughter, Princess Aiko, 14.
Upon the death of his 87-year-old father, Emperor Hirohito, on Jan. 7, 1989, then-Crown Prince Akihito ascended the throne at the age of 55. He was the first to do so as the “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” a new status given to the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy under the current Constitution, which came into effect in 1947.
The changes announced in May were intended to lighten the burden on the Emperor and Empress by cutting the number of meetings they have to undergo with guests at the Imperial Palace. The plan included skipping luncheon parties with foreign guests, including national leaders on official working visits.
They would also no longer meet with chiefs of prefectural police departments, district public prosecutors offices, district courts and municipal assemblies.
It was the first major review of their schedule since 2009, when the agency decided that the Emperor and Empress should not have to give speeches during visits to cities.
The Emperor is widely believed to be in good health. In February he was diagnosed with influenza, including a fever. He recuperated at the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo.
He suffered bronchial pneumonia in 2011 and had heart bypass surgery in February 2012. The Emperor also has reportedly received hormone treatment to prevent a recurrence of prostate cancer following removal of a tumor in 2003.
In August, the Emperor marked the 70th anniversary of World War II with an expression of “deep remorse”, a departure from his previous remarks and seen by some as an effort to cement a legacy of pacifism during a time of rising conservative Japanese nationalism.
“Looking back at the past, together with deep remorse over the war, I pray that this tragedy of war will not be repeated and together with the people express my deep condolences for those who fell in battle and in the ravages of war,” he said on Aug. 15.
In December, Emperor Akihito marked his 82nd birthday by paying tribute to all who suffered during World War II, including those who live with its legacy today.
He said it is “most important” for Japan’s future that the war is remembered and understood.