Japan opens the door to debate on female succession to the Chrysanthemum throne

Japan’s parliament has passed a law allowing emperor Akihito to become the country’s first monarch to abdicate in more than 200 years, but left the door open to a debate over the possibility of allowing females to ascend the throne.

The government was forced to devise a one-off law to enable Akihito, 83, to abdicate after he suggested last summer that his age and health problems were affecting his ability to carry out public duties.

Akihito, who has reigned since 1989, had cancer surgery in 2003 and a heart bypass operation in 2012.

In a rare televised address last August, he said: “I am concerned it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole body and soul as I have done so far.”

Japanese media reports said the popular emperor would step down at the end of 2018, to allow his eldest son, crown prince Naruhito, to become the 126th occupant of the Chrysanthemum throne early the following year.

While he is not the first Japanese monarch to abdicate, the current imperial household law, passed in 1947, does not permit a living succession.

The swiftly introduced new law, passed by the upper house of Japan’s parliament on Friday, applies only to Akihito, but includes a nonbinding resolution calling for the government to consider way to ensure the future stability of the monarchy.

Akihito’s retirement and the forthcoming engagement of his granddaughter, princess Mako – who will have to leave the imperial family after she marries – have reignited debate about the shortage of male heirs and a possible succession crisis in an imperial line some claim stretches back 2,600 years.

Mako’s exit will leave the imperial family with just 18 members – 13 of whom are women – and only four heirs to the throne: 57-year-old Naruhito, his younger brother Akishino and his son, 10-year-old prince Hisahito, and the emperor’s 81-year-old brother, prince Masahito.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, resisted opposition pressure to include a clause allowing princesses to establish their own branches within the imperial family after they marry commoners – enabling them to take on their share of official duties and their sons to become emperors.

Instead, the resolution calls on the government to “swiftly study” ways to secure a stable imperial succession, including the possibility of allowing women to ascend the throne – a measure popular among the public but opposed by Abe and other conservative politicians.

The law does not, however, set a deadline for the government to report its findings to parliament.

Emperor Kokaku, who gave up the throne in 1817, was the last Japanese emperor to abdicate.