The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has approved the date of Emperor Akihito's abdication on April 30, 2019. With his retirement, Crown Prince Naruhito is to accede to the Imperial Throne on May 1, 2019, and the era name will change.
A year and five months later, the Heisei era that will have lasted for 31 years by then is set to come to an end and a new age will begin. However, there are numerous challenges that must be addressed before then.
The government will begin considering ceremonies for the Emperor's abdication and the Crown Prince's accession to the throne. This will be the first abdication of an emperor in about 200 years since Emperor Kokaku stepped down during the Edo period.
Times have changed over the past two centuries and the emperor has become the symbol of the unity of the people. It is desirable to have simple ceremonies to which people can have a feeling of closeness while respecting the tradition.
The government is considering making the date of Crown Prince's accession to the throne a special national holiday. If it is realized, the "Golden Week" holiday period from late April to early May will be a 10-day vacation under the National Holidays Act.
It is understandable that the government wants to allow the whole nation to celebrate the Crown Prince's rise to the throne. Its apparent attempt to avoid causing confusion to people's lives due to the change of the era name is also reasonable. At the same time, making May 1, 2019, a special national holiday could also have an impact on industry. The government should clarify the purpose of making the day a one-off holiday, such as providing the public an opportunity to reflect on the imperial system, instead of simply enlivening the mood of celebration.
Emperor Akihito will hand over his duties to the new emperor after abdication -- the first time since the Meiji era that a retired and new emperor will coexist.
There are numerous members of the public who sympathize with the Emperor who has stayed close to the people. Steps should be taken to prevent the symbol of the unity of the people from being split into two.
The biggest challenge is how to maintain stable imperial succession. A Diet resolution accompanying the special law on the abdication of Emperor Akihito calls on the government to swiftly consider measures to ensure stable imperial succession and creation of Imperial Family branches headed by female members after the law comes into force.
The current Imperial Household consists of the Emperor and 18 other members. After Emperor Akihito retires, there are only three members of the Imperial Family who are in line to the throne, and 11-year-old Prince Hisahito, the son of Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, is the only one in the younger generation.
Under the Imperial House Law, only male members of the Imperial Family in the male line can accede to the throne. It is necessary to seriously consider what should be done if imperial succession becomes difficult under the current male-line male only system.
Creation of Imperial Family branches headed by female members is worth considering with regard to minimizing the shrinking number in the Imperial Family, as they leave the family after marrying commoners, and allowing public activities to be divided among the family members.
However, such a measure alone would not ensure stable imperial succession. Debate should be held on a wider scope of the issue, including whether to allow female members and those in the female line to accede to the Imperial Throne.
The decision to allow Emperor Akihito to step down has led to an atmosphere in which people can freely discuss the imperial system. Japan should launch national debate on the system from a long-term perspective before the special law on Emperor Akihito's abdication comes into force -- the date of which he retires as Japanese emperor.