Japan’s Emperor Akihito signalled his intention to abdicate in an extraordinary televised message on Monday, expressing concerns about fulfilling his duties due to declining health.

The emperor’s intention to step down in a few years’ time, which was first reported by public broadcaster NHK last month, has no precedent in modern Japan, writes the FT’s Kana Inagaki. An abdication would open up a sensitive debate on the future of the world’s oldest royal family.

“When I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now”, the emperor said in a 10-minute message aired on NHK.

“It is my hope … that the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the state can continue steadily without a break. With this earnest wish, I have decided to make my thoughts known,” he said, speaking slowly and with emphasis.

The rare message was the emperor’s second televised speech since he called on “each and every Japanese” to help each other in the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Public opinion polls over the past few days have shown strong public support for the emperor’s desire to retire at the age of 82 with many sympathising with his hard schedule despite recent treatment for cancer and heart problems.

But there is no provision in Japanese legislation that allows an emperor to abdicate, so a new clause or revision would be needed to make it possible.

In a reflection of his heavily constrained role as a symbol of the state, the emperor carefully avoided directly using the word abdication in his message. Using the term, experts say, could imply that the emperor is intervening in politics in a violation of the postwar constitution.

Some experts say the abdication provides an opportunity to bring changes to the 1947 Imperial House Law, which critics have said is outdated.

The occasion could rekindle debate on whether to allow female monarchs and their descendants to inherit the throne, although the idea has faced fierce opposition from traditionalists. The 56-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, the emperor’s eldest son, would succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne, but his only child Aiko, a girl, cannot inherit under Japan’s male-only succession laws.

At present, the second-in-line to the throne is Prince Akishino, the emperor’s younger son, followed by his son Prince Hisahito.

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