News & Politics

Japan Moves to Allow Its Emperor to Abdicate. But Just This Once.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan at the annual spring garden party at the Akasaka Palace imperial garden in Tokyo last month. Credit Toru Hanai/Reuters
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Ten months after Japan’s octogenarian emperor indicated he wanted to give up the throne while he was still alive, the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved special legislation on Friday that would allow him to abdicate.

The bill, which will be considered soon by the full Parliament, makes a one-time provision for Emperor Akihito, 83, to retire from the throne and be succeeded by his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito.

Emperor Akihito, a hugely popular figure in Japan who keeps up a grueling travel schedule, had asked to abdicate so that he could give Prince Naruhito, 57, time to rule. Emperor Akihito has reigned for 28 years, ever since his father, the wartime emperor Hirohito, died in 1989.

Once the bill – which is expected to pass in Parliament, where Mr. Abe’s party has the majority – is enacted, the government would have three years to set a date for the emperor’s abdication. Emperor Akihito would be the first living Japanese emperor to leave the throne in 200 years.

In remarks to reporters, Mr. Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, declined to comment on the timing of the abdication, although Kyodo News reported that December 2018 was a target.

Any decision regarding the emperor is freighted in Japan, where until World War II, he was seen as a god. The postwar Constitution, written by American occupiers, stripped the emperor of his status as a deity and set him up instead as a symbol of Japanese unity.

Emperor Akihito has also come to represent the pacifism enshrined in the Constitution and has acted as the country’s emissary of historic reconciliation with surrounding Asian countries that suffered under Japan’s aggression during the war.

He has also visited regions in Japan that have been ravaged by disaster, most famously going on television to console the nation after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

While the Japanese public overwhelmingly supports allowing the emperor to retire, conservative supporters of Mr. Abe have made clear that they do not want the government to set a precedent by permanently altering the Imperial Household Law, which governs succession.

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