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Planning will smooth Japan’s imperial transitions

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS / 2016

    A special measures bill has been passed into law allowing Japan’s Emperor Akihito to abdicate the crown. The emperor, right, and Crown Prince Naruhito, left, walk at Haneda airport in Tokyo.

The emperor’s abdication will become a reality. The government is urged to make thorough preparations to smoothly carry forward the succession of the crown prince.

A special measures bill to enable the emperor to abdicate has been passed into law after the House of Councillors approved it at a plenary session. All parties except the Liberal Party, whose members walked out before the vote, supported the legislation. The law will be enforced within three years after its promulgation.

This will be the first abdication by an emperor in about 200 years — Emperor Kokaku stepped down in the latter part of the Edo period (1603-1867). It will be the first abdication not due to the demise of an emperor since the previous Imperial House Law, enacted in the Meiji era (1868-1912), made the position of emperor a lifetime tenure.

Modern Imperial history has reached a major milestone. The fact the parties formed a broad consensus without politicizing the abdication issue can be applauded.

“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now,” Emperor Akihito said last summer in a video message to the public.

The public empathized with the emperor’s feelings; in a survey conducted shortly after the message, about 80 percent of respondents supported abdication.

The premise of the current Imperial House Law is also that the emperor stays on the throne until death. If the emperor is unable to fulfill his duties, basic procedure involves appointing a regent.

Legalizing abdication directly based on the emperor’s “message” could have conflicted with Article 4 of the Constitution, which stipulates the emperor “shall not have powers related to government.” With this in mind, the handling of the abdication issue by the government and the Diet appears to be largely reasonable.

The government set up an expert panel to establish the pros and cons of various contentious points regarding the issue. Leaders and deputy leaders of both chambers of the Diet coordinated the opinions of each party and formed a Diet consensus. The government formed the bill based on this.

After procedures were carefully taken, the public empathy toward the emperor was cited as a reason for the legislation. The principle of a lifetime tenure was kept in place, but abdication will be allowed as an exception. This was a realistic result.

Over many years, the crown prince has built up substantial credentials by diligently performing matters of the state for the emperor. This is another reason for enabling the abdication.

There is much to be done for a smooth abdication and subsequent ascension to the throne. The most likely plan is to hold a ceremony to mark the crown prince’s succession to the imperial throne at the end of 2018, with the change of the era name from Heisei to a new one to occur on Jan. 1, 2019.

Changing the name of the era will have a wide-ranging effect on society, including computer system modifications. The government should work out innovative ideas to prevent confusion, like announcing the new era name ahead of the abdication date.

The emperor’s title after abdication will be “joko.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told an upper house special committee, “All acts of the emperor performed as the symbol of the state will be transferred altogether to a new emperor.”

This can be seen as adequate from the viewpoint of preventing a “duality of symbol and authority” between a new emperor and a joko.

The emperor, even after abdication, is expected to continue his personal activities, including academic research and travel. It is possible that such activities will take on a kind of authority, so it is necessary to sort things out to define joko activities.

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