Japan’s government has approved a bill that will allow emperor Akihito to become the country’s first monarch in two centuries to abdicate.
The government rushed to devise new legislation after Akihito, 83, suggested in a rare televised address last summer that he feared his age and declining health would leave him unable to preform official duties. But it has ruled out legal changes that would address the country’s dearth of male heirs.
On Friday, Japanese media quoted officials as saying that Akihito would likely step down in December 2018 at the earliest, paving the way for his eldest son, crown prince Naruhito, to become the 126th occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Akihito’s retirement and the forthcoming engagement of his granddaughter, princess Mako, have reignited debate about the shortage of male heirs and a possible succession crisis in an imperial line some claim stretches back 2,600 years.
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also resisted opposition pressure to include a clause allowing princesses to establish their own branches within the imperial family after they marry commoners – enabling them to take on their share of official duties and their sons to become emperors.
Under pressure from conservative supporters in his ruling Liberal Democratic party, Abe opposed the change, claiming it would create pressure to end the male-only succession law.
Mako’s exit will leave the imperial family with just 18 members – 13 of whom are women – and only four heirs to the throne: 57-year-old Naruhito, his younger brother Akishino and his son, 10-year-old prince Hisahito, and the emperor’s 81-year-old brother, prince Masahito.
Concern is growing that the imperial line will be broken if Hisahito fails to have any sons.
The government agreed to comply with the emperor’s desire to abdicate – a move that enjoys strong public support – but has stressed that the bill will apply only to Akihito, and not future emperors. The current imperial household law, passed in 1947, has no provision for abdication.
Officials also quickly ruled out any discussion of a possible change to the succession law to allow female members of the imperial family to become empresses.
This week the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said succession was not up for discussion. “There is no change in our view to proceed with consideration of steps to ensure stable imperial succession,” he said.
The bill recognises Akihito’s “deep concern” about his inability to satisfactorily carry out his duties and notes the widespread public sympathy for his predicament. It will be submitted to parliament later Friday and is expected to pass by the time the current session ends in mid-June, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Akihito, who had cancer surgery in 2003 and a heart bypass operation in 2012, admitted that his age was affecting his ability to perform his public role.
Mako’s marriage to Kei Komuro, a former university classmate, will force her to relinquish her royal status, leaving one less members of the imperial family to carry out official duties. It also means that even if Mako gave birth to a son, he would not be allowed to become emperor.
Historically, abdication of Japanese emperors was common, with about half of the 125 Japanese emperors having abdicated.
Japan debated the possibility of allowing women to ascend the throne just over a decade ago. The proposed change, championed by the then prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, would have allowed Naruhito’s only child, princess Aiko, to become empress.
At the time, Takeo Hiranuma, an ultra-conservative former economy and industry minister, criticised supporters of a change in the law, saying: “Did (they) consider the possibility that princess Aiko might marry a man with blue eyes after falling in love when studying abroad, and the possibility that their first child would become emperor?”
Official enthusiasm for reform quickly faded after the birth of Hisahito in 2006 ended Japan’s four-decade wait for a new heir.
While no longer considered a living god after his father, Hirohito, was stripped of his divine status at the end of the second world war, Akihito is regarded as a symbol of national unity and stability, and has frequently used his public role to promote reconciliation with former victims of Japanese wartime aggression.