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Retirement of Japanese Emperor Akihito problem for parliament, computers

Staff Writer | January 22, 2017
Japan is moving to adopt a law allowing its octogenarian Emperor Akihito to abdicate but many topics remain to be settled before the monarch can retire in a step unprecedented for two centuries.
Emperor Akihito
Living in Japan   Japan uses its ancient imperial-era calendar
Japanese law does not currently allow an emperor to give up the throne, but Akihito, 83, who has had heart surgery and prostate cancer treatment, said in rare public remarks last August he feared age might make it hard to fulfill his duties.

Once Emperor Akihito steps down, a new “imperial era” will begin, replacing the current “Heisei”, meaning “achieving peace”, which began on January 8, 1989, the day he took the throne.

Although Japan uses the Western-style Gregorian calendar, it has also kept its ancient imperial-era system – “nengo” or “gengo” – in which a new emperor ushers in a new era.

The government might break with precedent and announce the name of the new era months before Emperor Akihito retires, to allow time for the switch to be made in official forms, calendars and computer programs, media have said.

A panel of experts is expected to indicate a preference for a special law to allow Emperor Akihito to retire, most probably by the end of 2018, MToday News reports.

Officials are looking at ancient precedents, since the last time an emperor abdicated was in 1817.

Besides the emperor’s title, duties and residence after he retires, the government also has to fix the name and date for the commencement of the new “imperial era” that will be ushered in by his successor, under Japan’s unique calendar.

Once considered divine, Japan’s emperor, or “tenno”, is defined in the post-war constitution as a “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people”. He has no political power.

Nonetheless, the title he is to be accorded after abdication is a touchy matter. History suggests Akihito should get the title “joko”, meaning “retired emperor”.

But some experts say the term echoes ancient episodes when the former emperor retained power and clashed with his successor. They prefer terms such as “zen tenno” or “moto tenno”, meaning former, or previous, emperor respectively.

Emperor Akihito’s duties include Shinto religious ceremonies and constitutionally-defined tasks, such as the opening of parliament. These will be taken on by his successor, Crown Prince Naruhito.

A pay cut does seem in store for the imperial couple, who do not have a large personal fortune, unlike the British royals.

If they retreat to the shadows, they will probably get an annual allowance roughly equivalent to the $400,000 received by Emperor Akihito’s younger brother and his wife – or about a fifth what they get now, Kimizuka said.

Residence options for the couple include the Togu Palace, now home to the crown prince, and the Fukiage Omiya Palace, where Emperor Hirohito once lived, both within the spacious palace grounds in Tokyo. The ancient imperial capital of Kyoto also cannot be ruled out, some experts said.