Aging Emperor Akihito would be the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in almost 200 years. The new bill also calls on lawmakers to consider allowing women to play a greater role in the royal family.
After almost 30 years on the Chrysanthemum throne, Japan's Emperor Akihito moved a step closer to stepping down on Friday, as the lower house of parliament passed a bill that would allow him to abdicate.
Akihito shocked the country in August when he admitted in a rare video message that he intended to hand the crown down to his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, citing age and health reasons. The emperor has in recent years undergone heart surgery and been treated for prostate cancer.
After passing the more powerful lower house, the bill is expected to go through the upper house and become law before the current session of parliament ends.
Although the final timing of the abdication has yet to be officially confirmed, Japan's Kyodo News reported - citing unnamed sources - that Akihito might abdicate late in 2018, around his 85th birthday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is also leading talks on new the legislation, told a news conference ahead of the vote: "I hope that the lower house today, and the upper house in days to come, will take this up in such a fashion that we can expect it to pass speedily."
Akihito, who came to power in 1989, was Japan's first emperor to never be officially designated as divine. His time on the throne was characterized by attempts to sooth the wounds of World War II, which was waged in father Hirohito's name.
A one-off bill
He would become the first Japanese emperor to abdicate since Emperor Kokaku did so in 1817. Without any legal provision for a royal abdication, lawmakers were forced to craft the necessary legislation.
Crucially, the bill is a one-off in that it will only allow Akihito to abdicate, with no provisions for future emperors.
Scholars and politicians had voiced fears that a fixed law allowing an emperor to abdicate could have led to future monarchs falling victim to political manipulation and maneuvering.
Japan's royal family pose for photo at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Crown Prince Naruhito (seated second left) is expected to take over as emperor once his father Akihito (seated third left) steps down.
The role of royal women under discussion
Friday's bill also calls for a debate on the role of women in the royal family, a discussion that has been prompted by the family's dwindling number of members and, crucially, male heirs.
The new law does not change rules dictating that women cannot remain part of the Imperial family after marrying. However, it does call on parliament to debate this. The issue was highlighted last month after the emperor's oldest granddaughter Mako, 25, announced her engagement to an aspiring lawyer.
However, a bill allowing women born into the Imperial family to keep their royal roles after marriage would be intended to increase the number of potential male heirs, rather than assume the throne themselves.
While traditionalists, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have opposed the new proposal, the overwhelming majority of the Japanese population backs it. A survey conducted by the Kyodo news agency last month revealed that 82 percent of the public were in favor of female royals staying in the family after marriage, while 62 percent supported the creation of female imperial family branches.