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Editorial: Gov't handling of abdication issue makes light of expert panel's purposes

The government's expert panel studying Emperor Akihito's abdication has compiled its final proposal and submitted it to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Based on this report, the government will move forward with the establishment of a legal framework for the Emperor to step down.

The proposal included a Diet opinion finalized this past March by the House of Representatives speaker and vice speaker, and the House of Councillors president and vice president. It suggested including Emperor Akihito's post-retirement title in special legislation allowing him to retire.

There have been 58 abdications of Japanese emperors, but no clause on the matter is stipulated in the current Imperial House Law or its Meiji period predecessor. If Emperor Akihito abdicates, it will be the first such case in some 200 years.

The proposal suggested that Emperor Akihito's new title would be "joko." It is an abbreviation of "daijo tenno," the title given to retired emperors in the past. While other suggestions included calling Emperor Akihito "daijo tenno" or "saki no tenno" (former emperor) after he steps down, the panel argued that it would be appropriate not to use the term "tenno" (emperor) to refer to the retired monarch while the new emperor took over public duties currently performed by Emperor Akihito. It is a reasonable suggestion in terms of avoiding "duality" in the symbol that the emperor embodies.

In addition to the creation of a system to allow Emperor Akihito to step down, the proposal also encouraged debate on the shrinking number of Imperial Family members, expressing strong concerns over the prospect that in the future there would be no such family members in the same age group as Prince Akishino's only son Prince Hisahito.

After some branch families were removed from the Imperial household, its membership reached a high of 25 in 1994 when Princess Kako, the second daughter of Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, was born. Today, that number has dropped to 18, and of these, seven are unmarried female members.

Under the Imperial House Law, female members leave the Imperial Family when they get married. The proposal underscored an important point that branch families could disappear in the future under such circumstances.

Looking back at the development of the proposal, however, the status of the expert panel has been unstable. The discussion virtually began with a conclusion that a special law would be created for only Emperor Akihito to abdicate and not for future emperors. Halfway through the debate, a regular council meeting among the heads and vice heads of both houses of the Diet became a negotiating venue to decide the format for the special legislation.

Based on Prime Minister Abe's comment that he would humbly accept the Diet view on the matter, the expert panel started debating on the remaining topics to be cleared, watering down the initial purpose of the panel -- to study the issue of abdication comprehensively and to draw a conclusion.

The final proposal also strongly reflected influence by the prime minister's office. It did not touch on the creation of Imperial branch families headed by female members. The prime minister's office is believed to be skeptical about establishing such branch families, seeing it as a move to allow for female emperors and matrilineal emperors.

It was also unreasonable that, before the final proposal was presented, a structural plan for the special law and an additional resolution to the legislation were drafted by the government and reported by the media. These plans apparently emphasize allowing abdication only for Emperor Akihito, in contrast to the Diet view.

It should be pointed out that the government treated the processes that the panel has gone through too lightly.

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