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Editorial: Expert panel's views on Emperor's abdication should be basis for public consensus

Points of contention on whether to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate have been clarified after an advisory council to the prime minister on the issue completed its hearing of 16 experts. The experts expressed diverse opinions on a wide range of points, from the pros and cons of abdication for emperors itself, to different views on legal procedures if the Emperor were to step down.

The panel will sort out the points of the various arguments before releasing a report on the matter after the year-end and New Year's holiday period. The report should serve as the basis for public discussions on the position of the Emperor in Japan's aging society to form broad consensus.

The council held three rounds of hearings in November, in which the 16 experts expressed opinions on the pros and cons of opening the way for the Emperor to abdicate and official duties that the Emperor should perform, among other issues. Following the final round of the hearings, Takashi Mikuriya, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and the University of Tokyo and deputy head of the panel, commented, "Opinions were diverse, but I think we can form consensus if the points of contention are sorted out."

The experts were basically split between those who are either for the Emperor's abdication or think that he is allowed to step down, and those who are either opposed to or cautious about the Emperor's possible retirement.

Those in favor of allowing the Emperor to leave the throne insisted that legal measures could allow him to step down. Meanwhile, opponents took the position that the appointment of a regent could substantially reduce the burden on the Emperor without having him retire.

The pro argument supports the current imperial system under which the Emperor appears in public and performs duties as the symbol of state and of the unity of the people, whereas opponents are of the view that the Emperor's existence is itself important, a reactionary view of Japan's monarch.

What complicates the matter further is that both pro- and anti-abdication camps are internally divided over the particulars.

Those in favor of abdication agree to allow the Emperor to retire because of his advanced age but are divided over whether a special law should be enacted to specifically open the way for Emperor Akihito to abdicate or the Imperial House Law should be amended to establish a permanent system for future emperors to step down. Some experts proposed that emperors should be allowed to retire after turning 75 or 80, but such a system would be inappropriate because health conditions and intentions differ depending on each individual emperor.

Abdication opponents were split between those who said a regent can be appointed by easing requirements set under the current legislation and those who insisted that "advanced age" be added to the conditions for appointing a regent. At least one expert expressed the view that the current system, which allows an acting agent to temporarily perform official duties on behalf of an emperor, can be expanded to reduce the burden on Emperor Akihito.

Both camps called for a reduction in the official duties the Emperor performs. Emperor Akihito has expanded his public activities beyond his acts in matters of state, such as his visits to disaster-hit areas, to establish his own image as the symbol of state and of the unity of the people. However, these experts pointed out that emperors' activities should be flexibly changed instead of fixing the scope and amount of what they do.

It is natural to reduce the burden on the Emperor as he grows older, but saying that it is enough for him to simply exist appears far removed from the awareness of the people who respect Emperor Akihito's image as the symbol of state, which he has established.

Another expert pointed out that if the Emperor were to be allowed to retire, it would bring forward the timing of imperial succession, which would have an impact on discussions on the future of the Imperial Family, including whether Imperial Family members of the female line should be allowed to accede to the Imperial Throne. Such discussions are indispensable in terms of stable imperial succession.

The government intends to lay out a basic direction of the issue sometime around spring next year after forming consensus at the advisory panel, while taking Diet debate on the matter into consideration. It should first and foremost launch debate on the issue, taking the points presented by the panel into account, to form public consensus on the matter.

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