The Japanese cabinet approved on Friday a bill that allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate, the first to do so in 200 years.
Citing his age and health, Akihito’s decision will allow his elder son Crown Prince Naruhito to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The 83-year-old emperor, who has had heart surgery and prostate cancer treatment, said in rare public remarks last year he feared age might make it hard for him to fulfill his duties.
He revived a longstanding debate in Japan over the issue of imperial succession in the 2,000-year-old monarchy.
Akihito was 56 years old when he ascended the throne in January 1989 after the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito. Naruhito is 57. He will be the first Japanese emperor to have received a university degree, from Oxford University.
A student of mediaeval transport who espouses environmental causes and has called for more men to be hands-on fathers, Naruhito defied palace officials to marry Masako Owada, a Harvard-and Oxford-educated diplomat.
Masako, 53, has suffered from depression brought on by the stress of palace life and demands she bear a royal heir, and her public appearances have been limited in recent years.
Women cannot succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the government has avoided divisive issues such as whether women should be included in the current male-only succession.
The only child of Naruhito is a girl. His younger brother Prince Akishino has a young son and two daughters.
The shrinking royal family will lose another member with the coming marriage of Princess Mako, one of Akishino’s daughters. When she marries a commoner, she will become one herself.
Chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters he expected smooth passage of the abdication bill, which would only apply to Akihito. Media reports have said officials are considering his abdication at the end of 2018, when Akihito turns 85 and marks 30 years on the throne. Suga refused to comment on timing and other details of the legislation.
The legislation for Akihito’s case was needed because the Imperial House Law does not provide for abdication. The last emperor to abdicate was Kokaku in 1817.
Akihito has sought to soothe the wounds at home and abroad of World War Two, which was fought in his father Hirohito’s name, and to bring the imperial family closer to the Japanese people.