The government is set to establish a panel of experts to consider whether to open the way for Emperor Akihito to abdicate, and aims to launch a national debate on the issue. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will announce the decision in his policy speech at the outset of an extraordinary Diet session to be convened on Sept. 26.
Opinion polls conducted by various news organizations show that an overwhelming majority of the Japanese public support the idea of allowing the Emperor to retire. However, it has not yet been decided how to legally define the Emperor's abdication and how to realize this. Careful and detailed debate on the issue is needed.
Prime Minister Abe apparently intends to hold debate exclusively on the abdication of the current Emperor rather than reviewing the entire Imperial Household system. As such, top officials of the Abe government are reportedly considering enacting a special law that would specifically allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate but not apply to future emperors.
However, if the abduction issue is discussed, the debate will inevitably lead to the imperial succession system, in which only male heirs can succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and a decrease in the number of members of the Imperial Family because female members leave the family after marrying, among other matters.
These issues would drastically change the Imperial Household system, requiring major revisions to the Imperial House Act. Considering the age of Emperor Akihito, now 82, there are time constraints on discussions leading up to a conclusion.
Still, whether to revise the Imperial House Act to provide for universal conditions for an emperor's abdication or to enact a special law to apply exclusively to Emperor Akihito remains a point of contention.
Regarding imperial succession, Article 2 of the Constitution stipulates that the Imperial Throne shall be "succeeded to in accordance with the Imperial House Law passed by the Diet," and Article 4 of the law states, "Upon the demise of the Emperor, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne." This shows that the law does not assume that emperors will abdicate. Whether emperors can step down without revising the Imperial House Act will likely be a focal point in discussions.
If Japan were to open the way for its emperors to retire, there would be a wide diversity of matters that need to be addressed -- such as the title and role of a retired emperor and problems that would arise as a result of the vacancy of the position of crown prince.
There are also time constraints, and it will take a long time before drawing a conclusion if the scope of discussions widens excessively. However, it must be ensured that these matters are consistent with relevant legislation.
In a video message released in August, Emperor Akihito expressed hope that "the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State can continue steadily without a break." Opinion polls show that a majority of the general public are in favor of establishing a permanent system to allow emperors to abdicate.
The government intends to place priority on considering the abdication system for Emperor Akihito, and then working on imperial succession and other issues relating to the Imperial Household.
Prime Minister Abe has been opposed to allowing female members of the Imperial Family and those in the female line to accede to the Imperial Throne or establishing branches of the Imperial Family headed by female members because such moves would run counter to the tradition of the Imperial system. However, the number of Imperial Family members would only decrease if the current situation were to remain as it is. After settling the issue of Emperor Akihito's abdication, the government needs to consider how to stably maintain the Imperial Household system. This is unavoidable.