A government advisory panel met Monday for the first time to discuss measures to reduce Emperor Akihito’s public duties, with the central issue expected to be whether and how an emperor should be allowed to abdicate due to advanced age.
There is no provision for abdication in the current Imperial House Law, as policymakers in the late 19th century believed it would weaken the Imperial system.
The six-member panel plans to hear from experts and will ultimately draft policy recommendations for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, possibly by next spring.
At the outset of Monday’s session, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked the panel members to discuss “what we can do reduce the public duties” of the 82-year-old Emperor.
“I’d like to proceed with the discussion in a quiet manner,” Abe told the panel members, indicating he wants to avoid political rows over any Imperial succession issues.
On Aug. 8, the 82-year-old Emperor made a rare televised video address in which he indicated that he wishes to abdicate in the near future. Speaking in a typically modest tone, he said it will be hard to fulfill his duties at an acceptable level as he grows older.
The Imperial House Law requires emperors to serve until death. The key question for the panel is whether to revise the current law or propose passing a separate, temporary law applying to Emperor Akihito alone.
Polls show that 70 to 90 percent of voters support the idea of allowing Emperor Akihito to retire. Top government officials have unofficially said that the government is willing to comply with the general consensus among the public.
But nationalists oppose the idea. They fear it would weaken the world’s oldest monarchy over the long run.
In ancient times, abdications were not unusual. But when the Meiji government drew up the previous Imperial House Law in 1889, it included no provision for an emperor to quit.
Leaders at the time, most notably Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister, feared it could eventually destabilize the Imperial succession system. Over a century later, this concern remains strong in conservative circles.
Abe is believed to be leaning toward the idea of enacting a temporary law that would apply only to Emperor Akihito, rather than a revision of the Imperial House Law, because such a compromise would likely avoid criticism from both general voters and nationalists.
This speculation was fueled Sept. 30, when Yusuke Yokobatake, chief of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, told the Diet that the government does not believe a special law would violate the Constitution.
Some constitutional scholars have argued a law that is applicable only to one person could be unconstitutional.
During a news conference, Takashi Imai, chairman emeritus of the Keidanren business lobby and head of the panel, said the committee will not discuss revising the Imperial House Law to allow a female to ascend to the Imperial throne.
“I think studies on that issue are very much needed, but at this time, what we have been asked by the prime minister to study does not include a topic like that,” Imai said.
The Imperial House Law stipulates that only a male in the male line of the Imperial family can ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nationalist conservatives have feared that any talk of revising the Imperial House Law could give political momentum to allowing a female to become a reigning empress.
None of the six government-appointed panel members specializes in Imperial affairs. This has led to rumors about how they were chosen, possibly because they were thought likely to make a safe recommendation.
The members include Takashi Mikuriya, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Tokyo; Atsushi Seike, president of Keio University and a labor economy scholar; and Masayuki Yamauchi, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and a noted scholar on the Islamic world.