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Editorial: PM's office, Imperial Household Agency should improve communication

It looks like there may be a difference in understanding and opinion between the prime minister's office and the Imperial Household Agency over the possible abdication of Emperor Akihito. It's cause for concern if that is indeed the case.

The possible schism between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office and the Imperial Household Agency was exposed through the emergence of news reports that the government had begun considering Jan. 1, 2019 as the date on which Emperor Akihito would abdicate and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, would ascend to the Imperial Throne, and a new era name would replace the current one, Heisei. The year 2017 is the 29th year of Heisei.

As the ascension of a new emperor entails a new era name, the government's proposal to institute the next era name on Jan. 1 appears to have been out of consideration to make the calendar transition as smooth as possible for the general public.

In response to the news reports, the Imperial Household Agency commented that Jan. 1 is filled with ceremonies for the Emperor and the Imperial Family, including rituals held inside the Imperial Palace and a New Year Reception, which is a state event, and that squeezing in another large-scale ceremony, like that for an enthronement, into an already hectic day would be difficult.

"Jan. 1 is an extremely important day for the Imperial Family," the Imperial Household Agency's Vice Grand Steward, Yasuhiko Nishimura, told a press conference. "The Emperor and the Empress carry out rituals and other duties (on Jan. 1) with all their hearts."

The prime minister's office has taken the initiative on the issue of Emperor Akihito's abdication, but what's alarming is the fact that the administration was considering Jan. 1, 2019, as the date for Crown Prince Naruhito's ascension to the Imperial Throne and a change in the era name had not been communicated to the Imperial Household Agency before media outlets broke the news.

The Imperial Household Agency's unfavorable reaction to a possible Jan. 1 ascension ceremony was widely reported by the media, and is said to have been an effort by the agency to clarify its stand on the issue. But it also could've been a display of the agency's frustration for not having been informed earlier by the prime minister's office about its deliberations.

Nishimura went from being the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for Crisis Management to his current post when Grand Steward Noriyuki Kazaoka stepped down from his position, and Vice Grand Steward Shinichiro Yamamoto was promoted to grand steward. Because of Nishimura's previous experience in the Cabinet Secretariat, there were hopes that he would help promote smoother communication between the prime minister's office and the agency. It's doubtful whether that has been achieved.

This isn't the first time a rift between the prime minister's office and the Imperial Household Agency has occurred. In the fall of 2015, the agency submitted a draft of a message from Emperor Akihito about possible abdication to the prime minister's office, but details were slow to be worked out, and the release of a videotaped message by the Emperor hinting at his desire to abdicate was delayed until the summer of last year.

Emperor Akihito has told former classmates that he longs for a permanent system allowing emperors to completely step away from the throne. However, the prime minister's office initially considered a regency system instead of abdication, and is now said to be deliberating the enactment of a special one-off law that would allow only the present emperor to step down.

Disharmony between the prime minister's office and the Imperial Household Agency has not been limited to the issue of abdication. They also clashed over the attendance of Princess Hisako of Takamado at a general session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as part of efforts to bring the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics to Tokyo.

Out of concern that the princess's attendance at the IOC general session could be considered political exploitation of an Imperial Family member, then Grand Steward Kazaoka said the decision to allow Princess Hisako's participation in the meeting was a "wrenching" one, a remark that elicited criticism from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Most recently, Suga has shrugged off Vice Grand Steward Nishimura's remarks as a "generalization that the Emperor is very busy on Jan. 1."

Ultimately, the administration will decide the date of the Crown Prince's ascension to the Imperial Throne. At the same time, however, the Imperial Household Agency is in a position to have the most in-depth understanding of the views of the Imperial Family. In order to allow for a smooth transition from one emperor and era to the next, we urge the prime minister's office and the Imperial Household Agency to improve their communication with each other.

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