Japanese Emperor's Abdication Date Formally Set for April 30, 2019
The Imperial Household Council of Japan has set Apr. 30, 2019 as the date of abdication for the current Emperor of Japan. Crown Prince Naruhito, aged 57, will succeed his father Akihito, ending the Heisei Era starting from 1989 since the death of the Showa Emperor Hirohito. A new era name is to be determined by the Japanese Cabinet.
Japanese history is rife with emperors who abdicated in favor of their sons or siblings, especially during the pre-samurai Heian period (794-1185 AD). However, since the reign of the Meiji Emperor, Mutsuhito (1867-1912), modern Japan has only seen emperors succeeding to the Chrysanthemum Throne on the death of the previous reigning emperor. The last abdicated emperor was Emperor Kokaku, grandfather of the Meiji Emperor and founder of the current dynastic branch sitting on the throne, in 1817.
The announcement made on Dec. 10 by the Imperial Household Council clears the way for the formal approval of abdication plans by the Japanese Cabinet. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that "We'll do our utmost so the process of the Emperor's abdication and the Crown Prince's accession can be carried out smoothly and the Japanese people can offer their blessings."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga noted that the Cabinet would “swiftly” formalize the timeline for abdication, possibly as early as Dec. 8.
Emperor Akihito succeeded his father, the Showa Emperor, upon the latter’s death in January 1989. In accordance with the Constitution of Japan, the Imperial Household Law, passed by the Japanese Diet in 1947, governs matters of the Imperial Household including the succession to the throne and the approval of marriages of male members of the family. Abdication rumors regarding Emperor Akihito cropped up in July 2016 upon a bombshell report by Japanese state broadcaster NHK. The report claimed that the Emperor wished to abdicate due to health issues, something which the Imperial Household Agency denied.
However, a month later, the Emperor made a rare televised address to the public on Aug. 8, 2016, noting his advanced age and increasing difficulty in carrying out his duties. As the Emperor is forbidden from intervening on political matters—in this case, the possible amending of the Imperial Household Law to provide for abdication—Emperor Akihito could not outright state his desire for abdication; however, Prime Minister Abe convened a government advisory panel to consider legal means to permit abdication in Oct. 2016.
Legislative efforts ultimately culminated in a “special-case” abdication bill only applicable to Emperor Akihito, passed by the Diet on July 9, 2017. The law was is formally promulgated by the Cabinet as an integral part of the Imperial Household Law shortly after, bringing the law and the abdication of the Emperor in line with the Constitution.
Per the provisions of the Imperial Household Law, Prime Minister Abe summoned the ten-member Imperial Household Council, which consists of senior members of Japan government branches and Imperial Family members, to discuss the abdication. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga noted that the date Apr. 30 was chosen to allow for Emperor Akihito to mark his 30th anniversary on the throne. This is also a good time for Japanese to adapt to the new era because the abdication will take place only a month after Apr. 1, the beginning of a new fiscal year. The late April abdication also extends the Japanese “Golden Week” holiday period up to ten days.
Emperor Akihito is the second Emperor of Japan since the end of the Second World War in 1945. He retains much popularity among the public, at home, and abroad, thanks to his effort to make the Imperial Family more relatable to the public. Evidence includes his marriage to a “commoner,” now Empress Michiko, his compassionate responses to natural disasters that have befallen Japan, and his espoused pacifism that has come to define postwar Japan. His upcoming departure from the throne brings up a host of issues, including selecting a new era name, determining the role and residence of the future retired Emperor, and addressing the matter of a shrinking Imperial Family. Furthermore, as Prime Minister Abe’s unchallenged conservative government plans for full Japanese remilitarization, the traditional role of the Emperor and the Imperial Family as symbols of a pacifist postwar Japan may be a source of controversy for Abe’s administration in the future.