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Editorial: Legal stability needed for Emperor's abdication

A government panel of experts has released an interim report on the points of contention over how to open the way for Emperor Akihito to abdicate.

Debate is already underway in the Diet over how to develop legislation on the issue. The government should cautiously draft a bill to allow the Emperor to retire after listening to broad opinions from the public.

The key point of contention is whether a law should be developed to specifically allow Emperor Akihito to step down or an abdication system should be established to cover future emperors. In other words, at issue is whether a one-off law should be created to specifically allow the current Emperor to abdicate or the Imperial House Law should be amended to open the way also for future emperors to retire.

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." Article 4 of the Imperial House Law states, "Upon the demise of the Emperor, the Imperial Heir shall immediately accede to the Throne," but has no provision on abdication.

In light of Article 2 of the Constitution, it would be normal to revise the Imperial House Law to add a clause on abdication.

However, the government and the panel of experts are leaning toward enacting a special one-off law to specifically allow Emperor Akihito to retire. This is largely because it is difficult to set permanent criteria on whether to allow emperors to step down.

If conditions for allowing emperors to abdicate were to be set, the government and experts would consider including the age at which emperors should be allowed to retire and how to confirm the desire of emperors among other matters in the conditions. However, it is unreasonable to permanently set the age at which emperors can step down as Japan's population is growing older.

The government views it as difficult to include the desire of emperors as a condition for allowing emperors to abdicate in light of its consistency with the Constitution. Article 4 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the Emperor "shall not have powers related to government," has been widely interpreted as meaning that emperors' words and deeds must not have any influence on national politics.

Moreover, emperors' ideas on their official duties and the public's awareness of emperors could vary according to the times.

It is understandable that setting conditions for allowing emperors to abdicate and spending a long time on discussions on the issue is difficult.

However, it is a matter related to the position of the Emperor, who the Constitution stipulates "shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power." It is an issue closely related to the "Emperor as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people" and "popular sovereignty" -- the basics of the country.

The possibility cannot be ruled out that creating a system for the Emperor's abdication, which is not provided for by the Imperial House Law, by enacting special legislation will damage the legal stability for imperial succession.

Priority should be placed on ensuring imperial succession is legally stable. There must be no room for allowing those in power to arbitrarily force emperors to step down.

Experts' opinions that the Imperial House Law should be amended to stipulate that a special law should be enacted to allow the Emperor to abdicate were incorporated in the panel's interim report. In other words, the experts propose that a clause be added to the Imperial House Law's supplementary provision, stipulating that a special law should be enacted to provide for the details of Emperor Akihito's abdication. Such a measure would manage to ensure consistency between the Constitution and such a special law. This proposal is worth considering.

The expert panel is set to submit a final report on the issue to the government by spring this year and listen to opinions from speakers of both houses of the Diet as well as representatives of both ruling and opposition parties before coordinating views on the issue in March.

The executive branch will draft a bill on the Emperor's abdication after receiving reports from the panel and the speakers of both chambers of the Diet.

University of Tokyo professor emeritus Takashi Mikuriya, deputy head of the expert panel, said at the end of last year that the panel would suggest that the government should seek one-off legislation specifically allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate.

In its interim report, the panel slightly changed its direction, but it was inappropriate that such a high-ranking member had given the public the impression that the panel was holding debate on the issue based on the conclusion that such one-off legislation should be enacted.

House of Representatives Speaker Tadamori Oshima called for moderate and serious discussion under a tranquil environment. His stance is understandable, but his call must not suppress free opinion.

Most opposition parties, including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, insist that permanent abdication system should be established by amending the Imperial House Law, a position different from that taken by the government.

The ruling and opposition parties should hold calm debate on imperial succession instead of locking horns with each other.

Speaker Oshima says the content of the minutes of the hearings will be withheld for now. However, the details should be swiftly publicized to deepen the public's understanding of the issue and spur active debate.

The panel intends to interview medical experts from the viewpoint of the aging population, and discuss the position, title and activities of the Emperor after abdication.

The government should make sufficient preparations for smooth imperial succession, including the process of determining the new era name and decision on the timing of announcing the era name.

How to respond to a decrease in the number of members of the Imperial Family also poses a challenge. The number of Imperial Family members including the Emperor, which stood at 21 as of 1989, the first year of the current Heisei Era, has fallen to 19. The number of imperial heirs -- male Imperial Family members in the male line -- has also decreased from seven to four over the same period.

In his video message released in summer last year, Emperor Akihito expressed hope that "the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State can continue steadily without a break," and asked for public understanding of his desire.

The Imperial Family is not free from aging and a decrease in the number of children. It is essential to consider the role of the Imperial Family by going ahead with discussions on whether to allow matrilineal members of the Imperial Family to accede to the Imperial Throne and female Imperial Family members to establish their own branches of the Imperial Family.

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