Japan is planning for Emperor Akihito to retire and be replaced by his eldest son on January 1, 2019, reports said Wednesday, as the country works on a legal framework for its first abdication in 200 years.
Akihito, 83, expressed a desire in August to abdicate after nearly three decades on the Chrysanthemum Throne, citing his advancing age and weakening health.
Major national newspapers - the Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi and Nikkei - cited unnamed sources as saying Crown Prince Naruhito, 56, would succeed his father on New Year's Day 2019.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the reports at his regular news conference on Wednesday.
After Akihito's announcement last year, the government established a panel of experts to help decide how best to proceed as the issue is fraught with historical and legal challenges.
Though abdications have occurred in Japan's long imperial history there hasn't been one in 200 years and under current laws there is no legal mechanism for one.
The six-member panel has discussed various legal options, with speculation rampant it will propose parliament pass a special one-time law to allow Akihito to step down.
The leading opposition Democratic Party, however, opposes a one-time change, arguing that would not ensure stable future successions. It has advocated a revision to the permanent law that governs the imperial family.
Abdication is a highly sensitive issue in light of Japan's modern history of war waged in the name of Akihito's father, the late emperor Hirohito who died in 1989.
Some scholars and politicians worry that the abdication issue could open a can of worms and risk Japan's monarchs - constitutionally constrained to being the symbol of the nation - becoming subject to political manipulation.
The panel is expected to compile a summary of its views on the issue in January.
Akihito has keenly embraced the symbolic role imposed on the imperial family after Japan's defeat in World War II.
Previous emperors including his father, Hirohito, had been treated as semi-divine.