Koki Nagahama/Getty Images
June 09, 2017 04:04 PM

It’s the end of an era in Japan.

Today, the Japanese parliament unanimously passed a special law that will allow current Emperor Aikihito to retire.

With passage of the bill, the stage is set for 83-year old Aikihito to become the first emperor to abdicate in over two centuries. Akihito, came to the throne in 1990, asked for the passage of the bill due to health concerns. He battled prostate cancer in 2003 and underwent heart surgery in 2012. 

However, the bill applies only to this current Emperor. It creates a three-year period in which the resignation could occur. Japanese media reports suggest with passage of this law, his abdication could occur before his birthday in December.

Also proposed in the bill is an eventual path to allow women ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. Currently, female monarchs are forbidden in Japan. Both of these changes are unprecedented in modern Japanese history.

Last August, following months of consultation and rumors, Aikihito (the son of Emperor Hirohito, who reigned during World War II) suggested he wished to abdicate for health reasons in a televised broadcast. His desire to pass the throne to his son Crown Prince Naruhito during his lifetime set a constitutional crisis in motion: Before now, the existing Imperial Household Law only permits passage of the throne upon death. 

“I am concerned that it will become more and more difficult for me to fulfill my duties as a symbolic emperor,” he explained during a ten-minute address in August. Given constraints of office, his speech constituted “a sharing of his thoughts” with the nation. Among the “hypothetical” points he raised, he asked what would happen if the Emperor were to become “too frail to perform his constitutional duties.”

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Akihito’s 2016 speech was only the second time he has addressed the Japanese public on television. The other address came in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami which struck the country’s northeast coastline and caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

The new law — which passed through Japan’s lower house of Parliament in April, and the upper house today — also proposes the government consider several other royal reforms. These include allowing women to remain within the royal household, even if they marry commoners. As well, to have the line of succession to pass through females in the family, as well as men. (This would the first step towards allowing women to sit the throne.)

Japan’s male line of succession has dwindled in recent generations. Under present terms of the Imperial Household Law, only three males, Crown Prince Naruhito, his brother, Prince Akishino, 51, Akishino’s 10-year old son, Prince Hisahito, comprise the active line of succession. Aikihito’s younger brother, Prince Hitachi, is fourth in line. He is 81.

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