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Gov't mulls legal changes over possible abdication of Emperor

Emperor Akihito has expressed his intention to abdicate, according to a government source, but since the Imperial House Law contains no stipulations on abdication, the law will need to be revised or a separate special law created.

Respecting the intentions of the 82-year-old Emperor, officials at the prime minister's office have already started considering the necessary legislative changes. To prevent the issue from causing political problems, the government intends to engage in discussions in a calm environment and proceed with necessary revisions during a regular session of the Diet as early as next year.

At the prime minister's office, a top secret team has been established under Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, a top bureaucrat with a background in the National Police Agency, to consider related revisions to the Imperial House Law. Details of the team's discussions have been kept confidential within the prime minister's office, with only a handful of people informed of the details, even among high ranking government officials. The government had intended to consider concrete details following some sort of announcement on abdication from the Imperial Household Agency sometime after the recent House of Councillors election.

Since the issue requires discussion on the long-term role of the Imperial Family, some government officials have adopted the view that it is not something for the government alone to settle. Officials are therefore considering establishing a council of experts to engage in wide-ranging debate.

If Emperor Akihito abdicated, he would not be the first to do so. But when the Imperial House Law was created during the Meiji era, it contained no stipulations on abdication -- neither does the law's current version, revised after World War II.

The current Imperial House Law states, "Upon the demise of the Emperor, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne." This points to a system envisaging succession only upon death of the emperor. If the new emperor has not come of age or "is affected with a serious disease, mentally or physically," or there is a "serious hindrance," then a regency can be established to perform acts in matters of the state. Previously when the health of Emperor Taisho deteriorated, the Crown Prince (the subsequent Emperor Showa) assumed a regency, but Emperor Taisho retained his title.

A government official involved with past revisions of the Imperial House Law commented, "Under a constitutional system of government, the will of the Imperial Family should not come into play around the period of imperial succession." As such, there are views within the government that a special law should be made for the current situation alone, rather than revising the Imperial House Law to form a permanent system.

Japan's Era Name Act states that the name of an era shall change only upon imperial succession, so if Emperor Akihito were to hand the throne to Crown Prince Naruhito, the name of Japan's current era, Heisei, would change.

According to the diary of an aide to Emperor Showa and other information, Emperor Showa at one point indicated an intention to abdicate following Japan's defeat in World War II.

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