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Japan passes bill allowing emperor to abdicate for 1st time in 200 years into law

In this May 28, 2017 file photo, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko appear at an event at Uozu Momoyama Sports Park in the city of Uozu, Toyama Prefecture. (Pool photo)

A bill to allow the first abdication of an emperor in about 200 years was passed into law at a plenary session of the House of Councillors on June 9.

The one-off legislation will specifically allow Emperor Akihito to retire and hand over his throne to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito. Emperor Akihito will be the first emperor to abdicate since Emperor Kokaku retired in 1817, during the Edo period.

All the political parties but the opposition Liberal Party voted for the bill. Liberal Party legislators walked out of the session before the vote, and all of 235 votes cast in the session were in favor of the legislation. The bill had cleared the House of Representatives at a June 2 plenary session with the support of all political parties save the Liberals.

Lower house Speaker Tadamori Oshima expressed satisfaction at the overwhelming majority, stating at a June 9 news conference, "I understand the significance of the bill winning support from nearly 100 percent (of the legislators), as it represents nearly the full will of the public."

The law comes into force on the day Emperor Akihito retires. Although the legislation does not specify the day of Emperor Akihito's abdication, it is widely believed that he will step down at the end of 2018, and that Crown Prince Naruhito will then accede to the Imperial Throne. The era name will likely be changed from the current Heisei on Jan. 1, 2019.

After his abdication, Emperor Akihito will become "joko," a title given to retired emperors in the past, while Empress Michiko will be called "jokogo," the wife of a retired emperor.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga bows after the House of Councillors passed a bill to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate, at a plenary session on June 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

The government will step up efforts to select the next era name, prepare for the enthronement ceremonies for the new emperor and launch work to set up a new organization to support Emperor Akihito after his abdication.

The new law stipulates that the date of the law's enforcement will be specified by a Cabinet order within three years after its enactment.

Article 1 of the law says that the Emperor, 83, is at an advanced age and deeply concerned that it might be difficult for him to continue to perform his duties, such as public appearances. The clause also says the public understands and sympathizes with the Emperor's feelings.

Under the law, a new organization that will support the retired emperor's activities, will be established within the Imperial Household Agency.

Funds allocated for Crown Prince Naruhito's younger brother, Prince Akishino, who will be next in line to the Imperial Throne after the Crown Prince accedes, will be increased by three times to equal those currently allocated for Crown Prince Naruhito. Prince Akishino will not be given the title of "kotaishi" even after his elder brother's enthronement.

Emperor Akihito hinted at his apparent wish to abdicate in a televised message in August 2016. The government set up an expert panel to consider the matter, and decided to enact a one-off law to open the way for Emperor Akihito specifically to step down rather than revise the Imperial House Law to establish a permanent abdication system.

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during Diet deliberations that the abdication of Emperor Akihito can be a precedent for the retirement of future emperors. If a similar special law was enacted, it would enable a future emperor to abdicate.

At the upper house plenary session on June 9, it was reported that the chamber's special panel adopted a supplementary resolution on June 7, urging the government to consider allowing Imperial princesses to establish Imperial branch families after marrying commoners and ways to ensure stable Imperial succession after the abdication law takes effect.

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