[JURIST] Japan’s lower house of parliament passed a bill Friday allowing Emperor Akihito [BBC profile] to step down and calling for a debate on women emperors in the male-dominated monarchy. Emperor Akihito, who has been on the throne for nearly 30 years, would be the first abdication [Reuters report] in almost two centuries. Akihito, 83, who has had heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer [BBC report], said last year that he feared age would make it challenging for him to fulfill his royal duties. During his reign, Akihito worked to heal the wounds of World War II, both at home and abroad. Akihito will be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito [Brittanica profile]. The bill also addressed the shortage of male heirs in the imperial family, calling for a debate on allowing women to remain in the family after marriage—current law mandates that they leave.
The cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe [official site] approved the special bill [Japan Times report] on May 19. The current laws preclude the emperor from retiring, thereby preventing a new heir to the throne from assuming the role until after the current emperor dies. Notably, this is a one-time abdication provision specifically designed only for Akihito, so as to prevent other monarchs from following suit by taking voluntary retirements. With the passage of this bill, Akihito would become the first emperor since Emperor Kokaku in 1817 to abdicate his throne. This is not the first time that the subject of female accession to the throne in Japan has been raised. In November 2005, a government panel concluded [JURIST report] that Japan’s succession law should be changed to allow the first-born child, irrespective of gender, the right to ascend to the throne. But late Prince Tomohito, Akihito’s cousin, disapproved of changing Japan’s “unique tradition and history so easily.”