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Japan cabinet approves abdication bill

Updated May 20, 2017 06:43am

TOKYO: The Japanese government on Friday approved a one-off bill allowing ageing Emperor Akihito to step down from the Chrysanthemum Throne, in the first such abdication in two centuries.

The bill is likely to receive swift final approval in parliament, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet signed off on the legislation.

Abdication must take place within three years of the bill becoming law.

Earlier this year reports suggested that 83-year-old Akihito could step down at the end of December 2018 and be replaced by Crown Prince Naruhito on Jan 1, 2019.

Reports of his desire to retire surprised Japan when they emerged last July. In August he publicly cited age and declining health, which was interpreted as his wish to hand the crown to his eldest son.

But current Japanese law has no provision for abdication, thus requiring politicians to craft legislation to make it possible.

The status of the emperor is highly sensitive in Japan given its 20th century history of war waged in the name of Akihito’s father Hirohito, who died in 1989.

Revered as a demigod before and during the conflict, Hirohito was reduced to a mere figurehead as part of postwar reforms.

Akihito has won plaudits for seizing upon the constitutionally-prescribed role of national symbol and there is wide sympathy for his wish to retire.

He has been treated for prostate cancer and also had heart surgery. And though he has cut back on some of his duties, he still maintains a busy official schedule, including occasional overseas visits.

A majority of the Japanese public supports a permanent law on abdication and they have also expressed support for the current bill to help enable Akihito’s smooth transition from the throne.

“He hasn’t had a way to retire, but I think he should be able to and enjoy his golden years,” 75-year-old Seio Ichijo said as he strolled outside the Imperial Palace with his wife.

While abdications are far from unknown in Japanese history — the last one was in 1817 — some people still believe being emperor is a lifetime job.

Akashi Kiyomiya, 81, who was also walking near the palace, said he was taught as a child that rulers serve until the end.

“I don’t want him to retire. I want him to be emperor until he leaves this world,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2017