It has effectively been decided that the Heisei era will come to an end in 17 months. This is a major turning point in the process to permit Emperor Akihito, who is approaching the age of 84, to abdicate.
The abdication date of April 30, 2019 was agreed upon at an Imperial House Council meeting, with Crown Prince Naruhito set to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne the next day. And so May 1, 2019 will be the start of a new era with a new name.
The Cabinet will issue a decision on Dec. 8 making the abdication date official. It will be the first time for the government to set a date for abdication since the Meiji era, when the practice of tying the era name directly to the length of an emperor's reign began.
On Aug. 8 last year, the Emperor made a rare video address to the country to express his apparent desire to retire, stating, "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."
Article 1 of the Constitution states, "The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power."
This being the case, the issue has been how the citizens of Japan should take Emperor Akihito's statement.
The Imperial House Council was convened based on a special law passed in June to provide a one-time exception under the Imperial House Law to permit Emperor Akihito's abdication. The special law itself was based on the recommendations of an expert committee and debate by the heads and vice heads of both chambers of the Diet. The very fact that we have reached this crucial point in the road to the Emperor's abdication is an epochal moment in the long history of Japan's Imperial system.
However, we are sure that the date chosen for the abdication has bewildered many. Instead of making a clean, simple era break at the end of a calendar or fiscal year, the Imperial House Council has decided to launch a new era name and year count a third of the way through 2019. We call on the government to minimize the effect of the abdication and succession on people's daily lives.
The government had initially considered a Dec. 31, 2018 abdication, with Naruhito's enthronement on New Year's Day 2019. The thinking was that, as the mourning period for an emperor who passes away on the throne would not be needed, the abdication and enthronement ceremonies could proceed smoothly.
However, the Emperor has many ceremonial duties and Shinto rites to perform around the New Year. In addition to these annual events, in January 2019 there will be a special ceremony marking 30 years since the demise of Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa. With the Imperial Family set to be so busy at the start of 2019, the Imperial Household Agency objected to a New Year's succession. Considering the Imperial Family's situation, avoiding passing the throne on at the start of the year could not be helped.
After that, the Imperial Household Agency is thought to have pushed for an end-of-March abdication, coinciding with the close of the 2018 fiscal year. The government, however, favored the end of April.
This appears to be for a mix of political and logistical reasons. Diet debate on the budget bill for the following fiscal year typically reaches a crescendo in late March, while the quadrennial unified local elections are scheduled for April 2019. In other words, March and a good chunk of April 2019 are set to be politically cacophonous, and the prime minister's office apparently asked that "the Imperial succession be held in a calm and quiet environment."
The next House of Councillors election is scheduled for summer 2019, while there is also a chance that a national referendum on constitutional amendments will be held in conjunction with the election. The government cannot be allowed to broaden the meaning of this "quiet environment" to serve its own political ends.
Beneath the surface, there was apparently a drawn-out negotiation and a power struggle between the prime minister's office and the Imperial Household Agency over the Emperor's abdication. However, the process of passing on the throne must absolutely proceed under the principle of the sovereignty of the people.
There were 10 people present at the Dec. 1 Imperial House Council meeting, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the other heads of the three branches of government, and members of the Imperial Family. Because the meeting was closed to the public, we do not know who expressed what opinions. However, the meeting was convened under the special abdication law, so detailed minutes of the proceedings must be released.
Another issue that will become a major focus in the coming months will be the timing to announce the next era name. In his video message last year, Emperor Akihito said, "When the Emperor has ill health and his condition becomes serious, I am concerned that, as we have seen in the past, society comes to a standstill and people's lives are impacted in various ways."
When Emperor Akihito relinquishes the throne, it will not be through demise, so preparations can be made in advance. The new era name looks likely to be released sometime around next summer, but out of consideration for calendar and datebook makers concerned about the impact on their products, some within the government have apparently proposed moving up the timeline. It is desirable to announce the new era name as quickly as possible.
The Japanese people are very interested in the next era name. So the process for deciding it, including the content of expert committee discussions on the issue, should eventually be made public.
When Emperor Akihito was still the crown prince, he touched on a favorite term from a passage in Confucius' "Analects": "sincerity and consideration." Specifically, it refers to the spirit of consideration for others, to treat their feelings as if they were your own. The Emperor has connected with the public exactly through embodying this attitude, always seeking to be the symbol of his people.
And so, as the country moves toward a new era, we call on the government to always respect the sovereignty of the Japanese people.