Japan’s House of Councillors [official website, in Japanese] passed a law on Friday permitting 83-year-old Tsugu Akihito [Britannica profile] to become the first emperor since Emperor Kokaku in 1817 to abdicate his throne, clearing the way for his son, the 57-year-old Crown Prince Hironomiya Naruhito [Britannica profile], to ascend to the throne. The upper house of parliament passed the bill [Reuters report] with a few lawmakers abstaining from the vote. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe [official website] noted the importance of this abdication for Japan’s long history and future. The parliament will now have to work the details of the scheduling of Akihito’s abdication and Naruhito’s subsequent ascension to the throne, which is likely to take place in late 2018. The prime minister’s cabinet approved the special bill last month, and it cleared [JURIST reports] the lower House of Representatives [official website, in Japanese], last week.
The law has created some controversy particularly since it makes no mention of potential female heirs to the throne in the future, despite strong public support for women [NYT report] ascending to the throne. But this is not the first time that the subject of female accession to the throne in Japan has been raised. More than ten years ago 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.” The following month the Japanese government set to prepare a legislative proposal [JURIST report] that would have amended the country’s the 1947 succession law, the Imperial Household Law [text; The Imperial Household Agency translation from Japanese], to allow female monarchs. In January 2006 then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi [Britannica profile] expressed his support [JURIST report] by promising to introduce the reform legislation. However, the following month over 1,000 protesters, primarily on the conservative side, gathered in Tokyo to rally against the proposed legislation [JURIST report]. The entire episode came to an abrupt halt ten days later, despite public support for the change, when Koizumi decided against submitting the bill [JURIST report] to parliament in the face of strong opposition from conservative members of his own party and partly in response to the news of Princess Kiko Kawashima’s pregnancy becoming public [JURIST report].