Japan clears way for Emperor Akihito's abdication

Japan's Parliament today passed a historic law effectively allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate, paving way for the first abdication by a Japanese monarch in almost 200 years.

The move clears the way for the accession of Emperor Akihito's son, Crown Prince Naruhito, probably late next year.

Akihito, 83, has had gone through a heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, and had told the public in a rare appearance last year that he feared age might make it hard for him to continue to fulfil his obligations.

The move had been in the making for some weeks. In mid-May, Japan's cabinet approved a bill that would allow Emperor Akihito to hand over the Chrysanthemum Throne to 57-year-old Naruhito. The bill made it possible to circumvent the imperial law that prevented the Emperor from abdicating. (See: Stage set for Japan's Emperor Akihito to abdicate in 2018)

As per the old imperial law, sitting emperors can't resign from their honorary posts. But through this one-off bill, Emperor Akihito is allowed to pass the throne to Naruhito, who is the eldest of his three children.

The soft-spoken Akihito, the first Japanese emperor who was never considered divine, has worked for decades at home and abroad to soothe the wounds of World War II, fought in his father Hirohito's name.

The upper house of Japanese Parliament passed the landmark bill, an event which was televised live on NHK public television. The bill was cleared in the lower house last week.

What needs to be done now is to flesh out the details of the abdication, including timing. Media reports have, however, said the final details will take shape at the end of 2018.

The upper house of parliament passed the bill with a handful of lawmakers sitting out the vote. It cleared the more powerful lower house last week.

"Abdication will take place for the first time in 200 years, reminding me once again of how important an issue this is for the foundation of our nation, its long history, and its future," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters after the vote.

Now the government has to hammer out the details of the abdication, including the timing, but media reports have said it is likely to take place at the end of 2018, which would mark three decades on the Chrysanthemum throne for Akihito.

The abdication, the first since 1817, appears to have support among the general population, who view it as a sign of changing times.

The government also has to ensure the continuity of a monarchy beset by a shortage of male heirs and shrinking pool of imperial family members. Women are not allowed to inherit the throne and have to leave the family upon marriage, an issue highlighted last month with the announcement that the Emperor's oldest granddaughter will marry a commoner.

The law, which applies only to Akihito and not to future emperors, included a resolution to debate letting female royals stay in the imperial family after marriage but did not touch on the controversial topic of allowing women to inherit.

Continuity and change
When Crown Prince Naruhito was in his last few weeks at Oxford University, he took time to revisit all his favourite places, the BBC reports. He realised that if he were to come back again he would not be able to wander around the city freely like a student.

"The town would be the same; what would be different would be my position in life," he wrote in a memoir. "When I thought about things like that, I was overtaken by a strange feeling of uneasiness, and wished that time would stop."

More than 30 years on, he faces another transition. Naruhito has indicated he is ready and will follow a similar path to his parents, saying he wants to "stand close to the people".

But the prince, who has in the past appeared to clash with bureaucrats who handle the royal family, has also talked about bringing "a fresh breeze" to the monarchy.