The government has begun preparations to revise the law governing the Imperial family system as early as during next year’s regular Diet session, in response to Emperor Akihito’s reported desire to abdicate, government sources have said.
The Imperial Household Agency is also considering organizing an occasion for Emperor Akihito to publicly express his own thoughts soon about a possible abdication, agency sources said Friday.
The 82-year-old Emperor would be expected to express his thoughts on his role as the symbol of the state following reports that he wishes to hand over the throne to his 56-year-old son, Crown Prince Naruhito.
News of the unusual move comes as the agency apparently considered that the government can start discussing the matter only after Japanese people at large understand the Emperor’s thoughts.
The agency was originally planning to have the Emperor express his thoughts at a news conference to mark his birthday in December, but is now hastily considering what other kind of occasion would be appropriate for the Emperor to speak publicly about the issue.
Revision to the Imperial House Law is necessary for an emperor to relinquish the throne while still alive, as the law does not provide for abdication. No succession from a living emperor has taken place for about 200 years.
To that end, the government set up a special task force led by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita last month under strict confidentiality. The task force aims to compile a draft outline by the Emperor’s next birthday on Dec. 23, when he will turn 83, the sources said.
The government also plans to set up a panel to hear from experts on the matter, and the panel discussions will be reflected in the draft outline.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declined comment Thursday on reports of the Emperor’s desire to step down, saying “I’m aware of the various reports but would like to refrain from commenting given the nature of the matter.”
The Emperor and Empress Michiko appeared in public late Thursday afternoon for the first time since news of the potential change surprised the nation the previous day. The royal couple left the Imperial villa in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, by car to return to Tokyo, and through a car window the Emperor waved at local residents on the street.
According to a government source, the Emperor indicated to a close aide earlier this year that he felt he could only remain emperor if he was able to fulfill his ceremonial duties and expressed a desire to abdicate if he could not.
Although the Imperial Household Agency was considering an additional cut in the workload for the aging Emperor and Empress this spring, the Emperor objected to any drastic reduction in his official duties, saying he would be unfit as a symbol of the state if he could not perform his duties, the source said.
It was not the first time for the Emperor to make such remarks as he had made similar comments repeatedly over recent years, and the Empress and their sons — the Crown Prince, who is next in line to succeed the Chrysanthemum Throne, and Prince Akishino — understand his position, the source said.
At a news conference Thursday, the agency’s Grand Steward Noriyuki Kazaoka denied media reports that the Emperor wishes to hand over the throne to the Crown Prince, but said it was natural the Emperor “should have various thoughts.”
According to another government source, Kazaoka and other senior agency officials had been exploring the possibility of revising the Imperial House Law since this spring, with the content of the discussion reported to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Imperial Couple.
Regarding media reports that the Emperor plans to express his desire to retire to the public, Kazaoka said “no specific schedule has been set” for that.
Since 2009, the agency has announced measures aimed at reducing the Emperor’s workload in view of his age, and said in May it would slash his meetings with heads of administrative agencies at the Imperial Palace, given that he performed around 270 official duties last year.
The Emperor said last year he had come to feel his age more often and acknowledged that he made some mistakes at ceremonies.
The government had initially planned to discuss the issue of abdication this year without informing the public, and after analyzing public opinion, engage in procedures for a legal change next year or later. But the schedule was apparently advanced in deference to the feelings of the Emperor.
There had been intense discussions about a decade ago under the government of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on revising the Imperial House Law. At that time, the focus was on succession being limited to male offspring of an emperor because no male had been born into the Imperial family for about 40 years before the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006.
A panel of Koizumi’s government recommended that women be given rights to inherit, but debate was shelved when the young Prince was born to Prince Akishino, one of the Emperor’s two sons, and Princess Kiko.
The Emperor ascended the throne at the age of 55 upon the death of his 87-year-old father, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, in 1989. He was the first emperor to do so as the symbol of the state and the unity of the people, the new status given to the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy under the postwar Constitution.