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Japan enacts law to allow 1st abdication of emperor in 200 years

Japan's parliament on Friday enacted a law to allow 83-year-old
Emperor Akihito to pass the throne to his elder son Crown Prince
Naruhito in what would be Japan's first abdication in two centuries.

While the law leaves the government to determine the exact
timing of the abdication within three years of its promulgation,
government sources say December 2018 is the target.

The enactment came 10 months after the emperor hinted in a
televised address to the nation that he wanted to retire, a step not
legally possible at that time. The new legislation allows abdication
only for the present emperor and does not solve the issue of a
shortage of male heirs and the falling number of imperial family
members.

Instead, parliament has adopted a nonbinding resolution
requesting the government to consider, promptly after the legislation
comes into effect, how to ensure a stable imperial succession by such
means as allowing princesses to establish their own branches within
the imperial family after they marry.

But the resolution stopped short of specifying a deadline for
the government to report the outcome of the debate to the Diet.

Females cannot ascend to the throne and must leave the imperial
family when they marry commoners, according to the 1947 Imperial
House Law, which stipulates imperial matters.

As Princess Mako, 25, the eldest grandchild of Emperor Akihito,
is expected to become engaged to a commoner later this year, the
number of imperial family members will drop to 18 upon her marriage.
Her younger brother Prince Hisahito, 10, is the only male of his
generation in the imperial family, leaving the long-term succession
far from assured.

Until now, only posthumous succession had been allowed as the
Imperial House Law lacks a provision on abdication.

Emperor Akihito's abdication will close the current Heisei era,
as an era name in modern Japan is based on an emperor's reign. The
government is considering starting a new era at the beginning of
2019, the sources say.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters after the enactment
that the process to legalize the first abdication since 1817 reminded
him of the "significance" of the imperial matter pertaining to
"fundamentals of the nation, its long history and future."

"A stable succession of the imperial throne is a momentous
issue. The government will advance debate with respect for the
resolution," he said.

In the rare video message released to the public last August,
Emperor Akihito, who has reigned since 1989, cited concerns that his
age and declining health may one day stop him from fulfilling his
duties. He underwent heart bypass surgery in 2012 and was earlier
treated for prostate cancer.

His words were widely interpreted as indicating his desire to
relinquish the throne and the government entrusted an advisory panel
to study the abdication issue the following month.

Although public polls showed that a majority of Japanese support
creating a permanent abdication system, the government crafted the
one-off law applicable only to Emperor Akihito, saying it could set a
precedent for abdications by future emperors.

The House of Councillors passed Friday the abdication law in a
unanimous vote with a handful of lawmakers abstaining after it
cleared the more powerful House of Representatives last week.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press
conference later in the day that it was "difficult" to set detailed
provisions to enable future emperors to step down, a step necessary
to create a permanent abdication system, citing unforeseeable
situations of the society, politics, and people's minds on the issue
in the future.

He also refrained from disclosing the likely timing of the
abdication as well as the announcement of the new era's name.

Historically, it has been common for Japanese emperors to
abdicate, with about half of the supposedly 124 former emperors doing
so. But abdication became impossible under the previous imperial
house law set in 1889, reflecting concern that the coexistence of
reigning and retired emperors could cause conflict.

The legislation approved Friday states that the public's
"understanding" and "sympathy" for the aging emperor's "deep concern"
about becoming unable to fulfill his duties as a reason to realize
his abdication, in a bid to clarify that he is not being forced to
retire.

After Emperor Akihito relinquishes the throne, he will be called
"joko," a title given in the past to an emperor that has abdicated,
and Empress Michiko will get the new title of "jokogo," which means
wife of joko, according to the legislation.

The joko will not be entitled to ascend the throne again or
become a regent.

Emperor Akihito's funeral ceremony and tomb will be equivalent
in status to those of past emperors, the legislation said, adding
that the public holiday to mark the emperor's birthday, currently
observed on Dec. 23, will be moved to Feb. 23, the birthday of the
crown prince.

The 57-year-old crown prince's younger brother Prince Akishino,
51, will be next in line to the throne after the abdication.
Accordingly, the annual budget for Prince Akishino's private expenses
will increase threefold to 91.5 million yen ($833,000).

Imperial Household Agency chief Shinichiro Yamamoto said in a
statement that the agency will do its utmost to ensure a smooth
succession by closely cooperating with other institutions concerned.

Emperor Akihito ascended to the throne after the death in 1989
of his father Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, becoming
the first emperor to do so under the postwar Constitution.

Once considered divine, the emperor is defined in the
Constitution as "the symbol of the state" with no political power.

While on the throne, Emperor Akihito has often traveled with
Empress Michiko, 82, to areas hit by natural disasters. Images of the
informally dressed couple kneeling down to talk with survivors at
evacuation centers were said to have helped bring the secluded
imperial family closer to the public.

The couple also traveled to former World War II battlefields
overseas, as part of their efforts to pay tribute to those who lost
their lives during the war, which Japan fought in the name of Emperor
Akihito's father.