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Separating announcement, formal adoption of new era name 'not appropriate but not illegal'

TOKYO -- The Cabinet Legislation Bureau has indicated that separating the announcement and the formal adoption of the new era name after the enthronement of the new emperor on May 1, 2019 is "not appropriate but not illegal," according to people familiar with the matter.

The equivocal interpretation presented by the government's leading agency on legal matters, shown inside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office, is fueling further the long-lasting tug-of-war between the government and conservative politicians. The administration intends to make the announcement and adoption procedures in April, before the imperial succession, while conservatives in and around the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) insist that the Cabinet order introducing the new era name must be signed by the new emperor.

Japan uses the imperial era name system alongside the Western calendar. Traditionally, a new era name has been introduced when a new emperor ascends to the throne, and the change requires substantial work in adjusting computer systems and calendars.

But Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, who is the chief of bureaucrats among the prime minister's office staff, is calling for the announcement of the new era name about one month before the enthronement, so that the era name change will not significantly affect the public's day-to-day lives. However, conservatives led by Seiichi Eto, a close aide to the prime minister, is staging strong opposition against the plan.

The idea of separating the timing of the announcement and of the formal adoption procedures was conveyed as a compromise to the premier by former House of Representatives Speaker Bunmei Ibuki of the LDP. The proposal consisted of two options for the timing of the announcement: when the Cabinet makes an informal approval of the new era name, or when the approval becomes official through a Cabinet decision. Then the new emperor, after his enthronement, would add his signature to the Cabinet order introducing the new era name.

According to the people familiar with the matter, officials at the Cabinet Legislation Bureau were unenthusiastic about the first option, saying there is no clear legal foundation for making the announcement based on an informal Cabinet approval. The second option is legally acceptable, but does not explain the reason for going against the tradition of promulgating a Cabinet order on the same day the Cabinet approves it.

The bureau thus settled with the "not appropriate but not illegal" interpretation for the separation plan. The body also said that if the new era name is promulgated on May 1, 2019, its implementation date would be May 2.

Some bureaucrats have another concern about the separation plan. They say that the arrangement means that after the announcement of the new era name, the government would have to wait for the new emperor's enthronement and his signature for the Cabinet order officially introducing the new era name. "This may be pointed out as a violation of Article 4 of the Constitution, which provides that the Emperor shall not have powers related to government," one official said, adding that the administrative procedure would come to carry political meaning.

In response to the legal bureau's interpretation, bureaucrats are bent on turning down the separation plan, while conservatives are using the "not illegal" line to pitch their position. The clash has no end in sight for the time being. Amid this face-off, the prime minister has maintained his earlier position that Sugita and Eto should "talk it out."


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