TOKYO: The Japanese government on Friday (May 19) approved a one-off bill allowing ageing Emperor Akihito to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne in the first imperial abdication in two centuries.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet signed off on the legislation, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters. It will now be sent to parliament for debate and final approval.
"The government hopes for the smooth passage of the legislation," Suga told a news conference.
Reports of the 83-year-old emperor's desire to retire surprised Japan when they emerged last July. In August he publicly cited age and declining health, which was interpreted as his wish to hand the crown to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito.
But current Japanese law has no provision for abdication, thus requiring politicians to craft legislation to make it possible.
The status of the emperor is highly sensitive in Japan given its 20th century history of war waged in the name of Akihito's father Hirohito, who died in 1989.
No abdication is expected until at least the end of 2018, according to reports.
Japan's government envisions December 2018, when the emperor turns 85, as the possible timing for his abdication, local media reported.
Crown Prince Naruhito will likely ascend the throne the day after or the following day, the Japan Times previously reported a government source as saying. It cited a senior imperial household agency official as saying that it would be "difficult" for the crown prince to begin his reign as the new emperor on Jan 1, 2019, as had been previously reported, due to New Year's Day events.
The leading opposition Democratic Party has argued the law should be permanently changed to ensure stable future successions, but is reportedly on side with the current one-off bill after talks with the ruling bloc.
Some scholars and politicians have argued that changing the law to allow any emperor to abdicate would risk Japan's monarchs becoming subject to political manipulation.
The issue has also highlighted concerns over a potential succession crisis in one of the world's oldest monarchies.
DWINDLING MALE HEIRS
A government panel in April issued a warning over the dwindling number of male heirs.
Only men are allowed to become emperor under current law, though Japan has had empresses in past centuries.
Female members of the imperial family must give up their royal status when marrying a commoner, underscored by news this week that one of Akihito's granddaughters plans to marry her college sweetheart.
When Naruhito, who has a daughter but no sons, ascends the throne, his younger brother Akishino will be next in line, followed by Hisahito, Akishino's 10-year-old son.
But after that there are no more eligible males, meaning the centuries-old succession would be broken if Hisahito fails to have a son in the future.
Many Japanese believe the sustainability of the throne can be solved by allowing for female succession, but traditionalists vehemently oppose the idea.