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Broad discussion on new era name needed as crown prince likely to ascend throne

The government is poised to make preparations to ensure a smooth succession from Emperor Akihito to Crown Prince Naruhito as it has started considering arranging for the 56-year-old crown prince to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne on Jan. 1, 2019.

The government is likely to take unprecedented steps such as changing the process of establishing a new era name and shortening enthronement rituals.

Era names were supposed to be established after the demise of respective emperors in the Meiji Era and thereafter. Various conditions for establishing a new era name will fundamentally be changed this time as the date for the Emperor's abdication is set to be decided in advance. There are many issues to be dealt with, but there are also many advantages in that the government can openly proceed with advance preparations.

The Era Name Act stipulates that an era name shall be revised only when there is an Imperial succession. A new era name will be enforced when the crown prince accedes to the throne. The practice is based on the "each Emperor one era system" established in the Meiji Era in order to clarify the relationships between emperors and their eras.

The government is considering special legislation to allow only Emperor Akihito to abdicate and it will be able to effectively decide the schedule of the Emperor's abdication. For this reason, the government has been exploring a possible abdication date that will have less impact on the lives of the people. As a general rule, era names are used in the government's administrative documents, but the western calendar is used concurrently in general. Some officials in the government argue that if the era name is revised in the middle of a year, it will cause confusion. Thus, the upcoming Imperial succession is likely to take place on the first day of the new year.

At a meeting of the government's expert panel on the Emperor's abdication on Dec. 7, there was an opinion that the government should consider a handover period so as to allow both people and the successor to prepare for changes. If relevant legislation on the Emperor's abdication were to be enacted this year and if the Emperor's abdication were to be set for January 2019, there would be sufficient time for preparations.

The procedures for selecting era names reported to the Cabinet meeting in 1979 when the Era Name Act was enacted include: scholars commissioned by the government submit their proposals; the chief Cabinet secretary considers them and narrows them down to several proposals at the instruction of the prime minister; the government solicits opinions from experts from various quarters at their consultative meeting; and a final decision shall be made at a Cabinet meeting after hearing opinions from the speakers and vice speakers of the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors.

Abdication procedures based on the assumption of the emperor's demise cannot be technically implemented in advance. Therefore, on the day when Emperor Showa passed away, the government started formal procedures and changed the era name to "Heisei" (Achieving Peace) the following day. The government asked multiple scholars behind the scenes in advance to come up with their proposals for a new era name. On the day of the Emperor's demise, the government called and formally asked the scholars. The government took only about 20 minutes to exchange views at the subsequent expert panel meeting on that day. The government hastily made a final decision in a dignified setting at that time, but if the date for Emperor Akihito's abdication is formally decided, preparations and discussions will be made openly and immediately afterwards.

Any decision on a new era name and the timing of publicizing it will be key issues in the future. If a new era name is officially announced on Jan. 1, 2019, the new era name will not be written in calendars for the year. Therefore, it is necessary for the government to let people know about the new era name in advance if the government takes into account its impact on the lives of the people.

In his televised statement made in August 2016, Emperor Akihito said, "When the Emperor has ill health and his condition becomes serious, I am concerned that, as we have seen in the past, society comes to a standstill and people's lives are impacted in various ways."

If discussions on a new era name are held in advance openly, the government could move closer to achieving its original purpose of hearing opinions broadly from people through the expert panel.

Nonetheless, the government will not be able to deal with it by adhering to precedents. The government needs to re-examine such issues as when it will open discussions to the public and how it will define the status of the expert panel. The government will be tested on how openly it will take procedures to establish a new era name.

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