Japan panel begins to study emperor's possible abdication

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2016 file photo, Japan's Emperor Akihito is seated during the opening of a 66-day extraordinary Diet session at the upper house of parliament in Tokyo. Experts on a government-commissioned panel were set to hold their first meeting Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, to study how to accommodate Emperor Akihito's apparent abdication wish, in a country where he is not supposed to say anything political. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, File)

TOKYO - Experts on a government-commissioned panel held their first meeting Monday to study how to accommodate Emperor Akihito's apparent abdication wish, in a country where he is not supposed to say anything political.

Unlike many European countries where abdication of kings and queens are relatively common, Japan's modern imperial law doesn't allow abdication, and Japan's postwar constitution stipulates the emperor as a mere "symbol" with no political power or say.

Allowing Akihito to abdicate would be a major change to the system, and raises a series of legal and logistical questions, ranging from laws subject to change to the emperor's post-abdication role, his title and residence.

The six panel members — five academics and a business organization executive — are to compile a report early next year after interviewing specialists on the constitution, monarchy and history.

Akihito, 82, suggested his wish to abdicate in a rare video message to the public in August, citing his age and concern that he may not be able to fulfil his official duties. His message was subtle and the emperor did not use the word "abdication," because saying that openly could have violated his constitutional status.

Current law, set in 1947, largely inherits a 19th century constitution that banned abdication as a potential risk to political stability.

About 80 per cent of the general public supports Akihito's abdication, saying he should be allowed to retire and enjoy life while he is still in good health. In addition to receiving foreign dignitaries, Akihito still travels across the country to attend ceremonies and has repeatedly visited disaster-hit areas to console survivors.

The government reportedly wants to allow Akihito's abdication as an exception and enact a special law to avoid dealing with divisive issues such as possible female succession and lack of successors.

Akihito suggested in his public message a need to consider how to make the succession process smoother. He recalled the difficulties he faced when his father, Hirohito, died in 1989 while he was largely serving as a substitute. He said he doesn't wish to cling to his title if his responsibilities have to be severely reduced and he has to rely on a regent.

The abdication issue has also renewed concerns about aging and shortage of successors in the 2,000-year-old monarchy, reflecting the overall concern about Japan's declining and rapidly aging population.

Akihito and his wife, Michiko, have two sons — Crown Prince Naruhito and his younger brother, Akishino — as first and second in line to the Chrysanthemum throne. The couple has four grandchildren but only one — Akishino's son — is eligible to become emperor under Japan's male-only succession system.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the outset of the meeting Monday that he hopes the discussion is carried out thoroughly because it is "an extremely important issue that affects the basis of our country."

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Find her work also at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mari-yamaguchi

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