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Panel lays groundwork for special legislation for Emperor to abdicate

An expert panel has begun debating the issue of possible abdication by the current Emperor toward building a national consensus. But in fact, it appears the panel is setting the stage for a special legislative measure backed by the government that would allow an exception for the current Emperor to abdicate.

At the panel's first meeting on Oct. 17, members of the committee, dubbed the "Expert panel on reducing the burdens of official duties on the Emperor," stated that it was necessary to consider the pros and cons of various options with an open mind. To ensure consistency with the Constitution, which stipulates that the Emperor "shall not have powers related to government," the government is hoping for a "neutral" debate that includes consideration of various options including the possibility of a regency, independent of the statement Emperor Akihito made in August in which he hinted at his wish to abdicate, a source close to the prime minister's office says.

The panel's discussions are expected to center on whether to make a permanent change to the Imperial system by revising the Imperial House Law, or to deal with the situation by passing a special law for the current Emperor only.

The issue of abdication also arose in the Diet in the final years of Emperor Showa's reign, but the government expressed disfavor toward such a measure. The then administrations expressed concern that allowing for abdication could destabilize the symbolic position of the Emperor, citing reasons including the problems that arose in the past when a retired or cloistered emperor influenced politics, the possibility that emperors could be pushed to abdicate against their own will, and the "impropriety" of an arbitrary abdication by a figure whose position in society is symbolic.

If a lasting system for abdication is to be established through revision of the Imperial House Law, there will be a need to determine objective criteria for who would approve abdication under what circumstances. Many within the government are wary of such a fundamental change in the system, fearing that it could end up binding future emperors.

If the discussion were to cut further into revisions to the Imperial House Law, the debate would have to be expanded to encompass issues such as female emperors, matrilineal emperors and female Imperial family branches, which would require a lot of time. Senior officials at the prime minister's office say the discussion would spin out of control if it were allowed to venture into such territory, and the expert panel's chairman, Takashi Imai, told a press conference following the first meeting that amendment to the Imperial House Law itself was not a topic of discussion at this point.

However, in a video message released in August in which Emperor Akihito expressed his thoughts on his official duties, he said that he hoped "the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State can continue steadily without a break" -- a statement that could be interpreted as a wish that the Imperial system be changed permanently. Public opinion polls also show that the majority of people support a permanent change in the Imperial House Law over passage of a special law for Emperor Akihito's case.

If a special law on abdication were to be passed, it would effectively apply to the current Emperor only, indicating that a stopgap measure was taken in order to respond to Emperor Akihito's wishes. Such a measure would also be open to questions regarding its constitutionality, if it is seen as a passage of legislation based on the Emperor's will.

There is strong sentiment among experts that Emperor Akihito's message should be taken as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink Japan's Imperial system. And although the government may be in favor of a special one-time-only law, the issue is expected to invite active debate within the panel.

Regardless of whether the final answer is a revision to the Imperial House Law or the passage of a special act, there will be numerous issues to work out, such as the title of an emperor once they abdicate, as well as a former emperor's residence, finances and funeral services. The biggest issue will be that of the former emperor's position and public duties.

A source close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that whether the current or former emperor would be considered the Japanese people's "symbol" would have to be decided, and worries that the Emperor's position as "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People" could change. This could be troublesome especially in cases in which a former emperor were to carry out public duties, such as taking part in a ceremony or visiting a regional location in Japan.

The debate over abdication cuts across a multitude of issues. "Public opinion polls show that many are in favor of allowing abdication, but at the same time, many people are in support of a regency, which is mutually exclusive with abdication," a senior government official said. "The public does not yet fully understand the problems."

The expert panel hopes to release a summary of the issues involved as early as the end of this year, and promote understanding among the public.

* * *

Emperor Akihito opened his video message released by the Imperial Household Agency in August by saying, "A major milestone year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has passed, and in two years we will be welcoming the 30th year of Heisei (2018)." As this phrasing can be interpreted as the Emperor's wish to mark a change with the 30-year anniversary of his reign, some in the government see the year 2018 as the effective time limit for making the Emperor's abdication a reality. The government is therefore aiming to set up the legislative framework necessary for abdication as early as the ordinary session of the Diet in 2017.

In order to be able to submit related bills to an ordinary Diet session next year, the expert panel deliberating the issue must compile its recommendations by next spring, which only gives it about six months. The panel is set to meet around seven times in the 2 1/2 months between now and the end of the year, during which they will organize the issues involved -- an unprecedented pace for something as monumental as the Emperor's possible abdication. The expert panel that was established in 2005 under the administration of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi compiled a report on female and matrilineal emperors after meeting once or twice a month for approximately 11 months, except for the final period of deliberations. When the issues surrounding the possible establishment of female Imperial Family branches were discussed in 2012 under the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, it took approximately eight months.

The reason the process is being rushed this time around is because the current administration faces a variety of political obstacles. Realizing the wishes of the Emperor, which have garnered majority support among the public, is inevitably a top priority. But such an issue affects the overall long-term strategy of the current administration, including the dissolution of the House of Representatives and a snap general election. The Abe administration, if it were to be honest, wants to get the issue of abdication sorted out as soon as possible so that it can focus on other things.

For example, if abdication-related bills were to be submitted to the Diet, and the lower house were dissolved and a snap election called before the laws were passed, the bills would automatically be discarded. This fact makes it difficult for Prime Minister Abe to dissolve the lower house and call a snap election before such legislation is passed. Because of this, some observers believe that the prime minister is unlikely to dissolve the lower house once related bills are submitted to the Diet.

The term for lower house lawmakers ends in December 2018. If Abe does not dissolve the lower chamber at the beginning of the ordinary session of the Diet next January as rumored, it is highly probable that he will aim to dissolve it sometime between later next year, after the term for Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members expires in July, and 2018. From Abe's perspective, it would be best to have the legal foundations for abdication settled by the beginning of 2017.

The circumstances for dissolving the lower house are different, however, if an expert panel is in the process of debate, but no bill has yet been submitted. The expert panel under Koizumi began discussions in January 2005, but the prime minister dissolved the lower house that August, while discussions were still being carried out. The panel kept meeting during the election period and compiled a report that November. If the expert panel on abdication that was launched on Oct. 17 finishes its discussions by the end of this year, Abe could dissolve the lower chamber without obstacle, given related bills have yet to be submitted to the Diet.

The discussion over possible abdication by the Emperor could have an impact on the time frame for debate on constitutional revision as envisioned by the Abe administration. In contrast to the Emperor's advanced age, which is an easily understandable reason to rush the process, constitutional revision does not have the same urgency. And as such, constitutional revision could thus be put on the back burner.

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