The Japanese government on Tuesday approved a basic plan for how to stage the imperial succession rites next year, including an enthronement ceremony on Oct. 22 to mark Crown Prince Naruhito's accession.
Emperor Akihito, 84, will step down on April 30 next year, becoming the first Japanese monarch to do so in more than two centuries, with his elder son acceding to the throne the following day.
"In accordance with the basic policy, the Cabinet will come together and proceed with preparations so that the abdication and enthronement will be held smoothly while the Japanese people celebrate the occasions," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quoted as telling his ministers, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
The government will set up in the fall a ministerial-level preparation committee to be headed by Abe for succession rituals.
The basic plan stipulates that the series of events should follow the examples of the rituals held for Emperor Akihito's enthronement in 1989. Back then, female imperial family members did not attend the key rite in which the new emperor inherited the traditional regalia. The same ceremony for the new emperor will be held on May 1 next year.
The world's oldest hereditary monarchy only allows male members to attend this ceremony as the Imperial House Law stipulates only males can ascend the throne. Critics say such a practice is out of touch with the times.
In contrast, the government is considering allowing female Cabinet ministers, currently numbering two, to take part in the rite on the grounds they are unrelated to the imperial succession and would be attending as observers.
(Emperor Akihito and imperial family members attend a New Year's ceremony in January 2018)
During the abdication ceremony in the Imperial Palace on April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito will meet with the prime minister, parliament chiefs and other officials representing the Japanese people.
Dignitaries and envoys from overseas will be invited to the incoming emperor's enthronement ceremony in October next year. The event is staged to proclaim the imperial succession at home and abroad, and is followed by a parade and a banquet.
Both the abdication and enthronement ceremonies on April 30 and Oct. 22, 2019, will be held as state occasions.
In addition, the Imperial Household Agency plans to hold the "Daijosai," or Grand Thanksgiving rite, on Nov. 14-15, 2019. During this, the most important imperial ritual following his enthronement, the new emperor will eat rice harvested that year in appreciation of the country's bounty of grain.
That rite will be held as an imperial event, not a state occasion, as it is linked to Shinto -- Japan's indigenous religion in which the emperor is venerated as a descendant of the sun goddess -- and therefore it is feared it could violate the constitutional principle of keeping religion and government separate.
(Emperor Akihito at a ceremony in November 1990 to mark his accession to the throne)
The present emperor, who has undergone heart surgery and treatment for prostate cancer, signaled his desire to step down in a video message in 2016, citing concerns about his advanced age and weakening health that could prevent him from fulfilling his duties.
Japan's Diet enacted a one-off law last June allowing him to pass his status to his elder son. The special legislation was necessary as the Imperial House Law lacks a provision on the emperor's abdication.