The government said Friday it plans to postpone this month's ceremonies to celebrate Crown Prince Fumihito's ascent to first in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, while Emperor Naruhito described the coronavirus outbreak as "a great challenge to mankind."

The "Rikkoshi no rei" ceremonies, scheduled for April 19, are intended to proclaim the 54-year-old crown prince's new status, which he acquired after his brother, the emperor, ascended the throne in May last year.

"Following the prime minister's instructions, we will start making arrangements to postpone the ceremonies as a state of emergency has been issued," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference.

The government will set a new date after taking into account developments in the viral outbreak, said Suga, the top government spokesman. Alarmed by sharp rises in infections in urban areas, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures.

The Abe Cabinet is expected to officially endorse the postponement next week.

((from R) Japanese Crown Prince Fumihito, Crown Princess Kiko, Princess Mako and Princess Kako)

The postponement will affect the government's plan to formally start discussions after the ceremonies over how to ensure stable imperial succession amid a shrinking number of male heirs. Under the 1947 Imperial House Law, only males in the paternal line can ascend the throne.

The Imperial Household Agency said it has been notified of the government plan and reported it to the crown prince, the emperor and their spouses.

Two events -- the "Rikkoshi Senmei no gi" ceremony to proclaim Crown Prince Fumihito's new status and the "Choken no gi" ceremony in which he will meet with the emperor and empress following the proclamation -- had been planned for April 19.

As the new coronavirus spread in Japan, the government initially planned to reduce the number of guests at the proclamation ceremony to about 50 from 350.

But the government was forced to postpone the event as Japan scrambles to curb a sharp rise in infections, with people in the seven prefectures asked to stay at home under a monthlong state of emergency.

The ceremonies will be the last in a series of official events held for the imperial succession after former Emperor Akihito, 86, abdicated on April 30 last year, the first Japanese emperor to do so in over 200 years.

(Emperor Naruhito (front L) and Emperor Masako)
[Photo courtesy of Imperial Household Agency]

There are currently three heirs to the throne -- the crown prince, his son Prince Hisahito, 13, and Prince Hitachi, 84, the uncle of the 60-year-old emperor.

As the size of the imperial family has been shrinking in Japan, how to ensure stable succession has become a critical issue.

Also Friday, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako received a lecture from a member of the government panel discussing response to the outbreak.

Shigeru Omi, head of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization, briefed the couple on the recent situation surrounding the virus as well as the state of emergency declaration issued by the government this week.

"The spread of infections is a great challenge to mankind," the emperor said at the start of the lecture. "I sincerely hope we could unite our hearts and work together to overcome difficult situations."