The Abe administration appears set on enabling the abdication of Emperor Akihito by enacting one-off special legislation instead of instituting Imperial abdication by amending the Imperial House Law, which sets the rules on Imperial succession. Even before the government’s panel of experts tasked with discussing the issue comes up with a formal report, possible dates have already been speculated in media reports for the Emperor to retire to pave way for Crown Prince Naruhito to ascend to the throne, likely sometime in 2018.
But abdication is an issue that will concern not only Emperor Akihito but future generation of the Imperial family as well. The concern cited by the Emperor when he expressed his wish to retire in a televised video message last August — that of becoming unable to perform his duties due to his advanced age and increasing frailty — could come back to haunt his successors. Other issues related to the Imperial family that have been cast aside in the ongoing discussions since the Emperor’s message — including the future sustainability of the family under current rules that restrict succession to males in the paternal lineage — will not go away even if the present issue is resolved through legislation applied only to the current emperor.
The Imperial House Law does not provide for abdication, saying that the throne passes to the heir upon the emperor’s death. After the Emperor, who turned 83 last month, indicated his wish to step down and much of the public appeared to support his abdication, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has explored legislative means to address the issue. Abe set up an advisory panel, which held hearing sessions with experts on the Imperial system and constitutional issues last fall and is scheduled to summarize the points of discussion on Monday. Based on the panel’s report, political parties with Diet seats will collect the opinions of their members, which will then be put together by the Lower House speaker and vice speaker, and the Upper House president and vice president, to be reported to the government. The Abe administration then plans to submit the relevant legislation to the Diet by late April with the aim of getting it enacted during the current session that ends in June.
The government is apparently taking every care to build a broad consensus within the Diet — exchanging views on the issue among the ruling as well as opposition parties even before the legislation is put on the Diet agenda — so that the legislation will be cast as based on “the will of the people,” from which, according to the Constitution, derives the emperor’s position as “the symbol of the State and the unity of the people.” It’s still unclear how the Diet deliberations on the planned legislation will turn out. Some opposition parties, including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, are calling for amending the Imperial House Law instead of enacting a one-off special law.
The Abe administration has sought to limit the scope of discussion to the question of possible abdication. It reportedly tried to avoid amending the Imperial House Law — partly because the process would take too much time and partly to prevent the discussions from spreading to other issues that concern Imperial succession, including the rule limiting the succession to male family members of paternal lineage — which conservatives seek to uphold for the sake of tradition despite the risk that it could threaten future succession. The government’s panel is said to effectively recommend one-off legislation applicable to Emperor Akihito alone on the grounds that it would be difficult to set the criteria for an Imperial abdication that could be uniformly applied to future emperors.
Given the already advanced age of the Emperor, the government’s pursuit of a quick solution to the issue may be inevitable. But the questions regarding the Imperial succession that would be sidelined this time will not disappear. They should continue to be discussed so that the government will not be cornered into making decisions only after a situation arises in the future that demands quick action.
In 2005, a government panel of experts who discussed the Imperial House Law, in a report submitted to then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, suggested allowing reigning empresses and Imperial succession on maternal lineage. That discussion was put to rest when Prince Hisahito was born in 2006 to the family of Prince Akishino, the younger brother of Crown Prince Naruhito. Abe, who took over from Koizumi that year, never took up the issue of amending the Imperial House Law to pave the way for women to take the throne. But the shortage of male successors in line to the throne remains little changed — if the Crown Prince ascends to the throne, Prince Akishino and Prince Hisahito, the first male born to the Imperial family in 40 years, will be the sole heirs in line along with 81-year-old Prince Hitachi, the younger brother of Emperor Akihito.
One-off legislation for Emperor Akihito will leave these issues unaddressed.