Tokyo, Japan | AFP |.Japan is planning for Emperor Akihito to retire and be replaced by his eldest son on January 1, 2019, reports said Wednesday, as the country works on a legal framework for its first abdication in 200 years.
Akihito, 83, expressed a desire in August to abdicate after nearly three decades on the Chrysanthemum Throne, citing his advancing age and weakening health.
Major national newspapers -- the Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi and Nikkei -- cited unnamed sources as saying Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, would succeed his father on New Year's Day 2019.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the reports at his regular news conference on Wednesday.
After Akihito's announcement last year, the government established a panel of experts to help decide how best to proceed on an issue fraught with historical and legal challenges.
Though abdications have occurred in Japan's long imperial history there has not been one for 200 years. Under current laws there is no legal mechanism for one.
The six-member panel has discussed various legal options, with speculation rampant it will propose parliament pass a special one-time law to allow Akihito to step down.
The leading opposition Democratic Party, however, opposes a one-time change, arguing that this would not ensure stable future successions. It has advocated a revision to the permanent law that governs the imperial family.
Abdication is a highly sensitive issue in light of Japan's modern history of war waged in the name of Akihito's father Emperor Hirohito, who died in 1989.
- 'The emperor's feelings' –
Some scholars and politicians worry that the abdication issue could open a can of worms and risk Japan's monarchs becoming subject to political manipulation. Under the constitution they play only a symbolic role.
The panel plans to compile a summary of its views on the issue this month, a government official said.
Its firm proposals, however, will come no later than the end of March before the government submits legislation to parliament, reports said.
As for the timing of the abdication, the Yomiuri said the panel considers that January 1, 2019 would be appropriate given he will have reigned for 30 years -- something the emperor himself mentioned as a milestone year in his August speech.
The Asahi said Akihito would step down sometime on December 31, though the Nikkei reported it could also happen on New Year's Day when Naruhito is enthroned.
The reports also said that the government plans to announce the official name of Naruhito's reign era at least six months beforehand to avoid confusion in daily life.
Years in Japan are numbered both in terms of the length of an emperor's reign, as well as in accordance with western calendar years.
When Hirohito died on January 7, 1989, the 64th year of his Showa era ended after just seven days. The government announced the first year of Akihito's Heisei era would start the following day.
"The government's plan to start a fresh imperial era on New Year's Day is in line with the emperor's feelings" to ease burdens on the Japanese people, the Yomiuri said.
Previous emperors, including Hirohito, were deemed semi-divine. But in the aftermath of Japan's World War II defeat and occupation they became constitutionally limited to a role as "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people".
Akihito has keenly embraced the symbolic role. He is credited with making efforts to seek reconciliation both at home and abroad over the legacy of the war fought in his father's name.