Japan on Friday approved a bill that will allow Emperor Akihito to hand over the Chrysanthemum throne to his heir, Naruhito.
The bill's first article states that 83-year-old Emperor Akihito is "deeply concerned" about having difficulties in continuing his official duties as he ages. His heir apparent Crown Prince Naruhito-and any future successors-would not be able to abdicate under the same law.
The government will set the date for the abdication, which is expected to be in December 2018.
Japan's top government spokesperson Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference on Friday that the government expects the bill to be passed at the parliament "smoothly", but declined to comment on the possible timing of the abdication. The bill in its current form does no such thing, but the opposition Democratic Party has been advocating for debate on allowing princesses to remain in the royal family after they marry commoners. He will be succeeded by Crown Prince Naruhito, 57.
The last time an emperor stepped down was in 1817.
Akihito, who has had heart surgery and was treated for prostate cancer, has been on the throne since the death of his father, Hirohito, in 1989 and is loved and revered by many Japanese.
The legislation for Akihito's case was needed because the Imperial House Law does not provide for abdication.
But after that there are no more eligible males, meaning the centuries-old succession would be broken if Hisahito fails to have a son in the future.
Under the current law, female members of the imperial family are not allowed to inherit the throne. Amending the Imperial Household Law would have taken years and created a precedent, so lawmakers drew up a special bill, which says that the Japanese public has "sympathy" for the emperor's situation.
Securing stable succession amid a declining number of imperial family members, highlighted by recent news of the impending engagement of Princess Mako, who is Emperor Akihito's eldest grandchild, to a commoner, remains a challenge.
The bill, which will make it possible to circumvent the imperial law that now prevents the Emperor from abdicating, was approved during a cabinet meeting, Efe news reported.