The timing of Emperor Akihito’s abdication, Japan’s first in nearly two centuries, is to be discussed by a special panel that will meet from Dec. 1, the top government spokesman said on Wednesday.
Akihito, who turns 84 on Dec. 23 and has had heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, said in rare remarks last year that he feared age might make it hard to fulfil his duties.
A law adopted in June that allows him to step down and be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito, 57, left details, such as timing, to be worked out.
News the Imperial Household Council - whose 10 members include Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the chief justice of the Supreme Court along with two royals - would convene grabbed domestic headlines after Abe called on Akihito on Tuesday, apparently to inform the emperor of the meeting.
Once considered divine, Japan’s emperor is defined in the post-war constitution as a "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people”, and he has no political power.
But Akihito, who has spent much of his time on the throne seeking to soothe the wounds of a war fought in his father Hirohito’s name, and consoling people suffering from disasters or other woes, is widely respected by many average Japanese.
At a special news conference to announce the meeting, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga did not comment on media reports that two options were being considered - March 31, 2019, or April 30 that year.
"After hearing (the panel‘s) opinion, based on that, we would like to decide the date promptly,” he said.
The government had proposed the emperor retire at the end of 2018 but Imperial Household Agency officials demurred, media have said, citing a cluster of rituals and other events around that time.
Some in government, however, now worry an alternate proposal of March 31, 2019, would be complicated by nationwide local elections set for that spring, media said.
Once Akihito steps down, a new "imperial era” will begin, replacing the current "Heisei”, or "achieving peace” period, which began on Jan. 8, 1989, the day he took the throne.
Japan uses the Western-style Gregorian calendar but has also preserved the ancient custom in which the reign of a new emperor ushers in a new era.