According to the Japanese Constitution, the Emperor is the symbol of the Japanese state and the unity of the Japanese people. You could thus say it is symbolic that the Imperial household is now facing an unprecedented demographic crisis, one that may ultimately lead to a succession dilemma and possibly even a constitutional quandary. While the recent hospitalization of 78-year-old Emperor Akihito due to illness has probably made more people think about succession, a more urgent cause of official concern may lie elsewhere: marriage.
Japan’s Imperial family currently consists of 23 members spanning four generations. The oldest, Prince Mikasa, was born in 1915 and is the youngest brother of the late Emperor Hirohito. The youngest is 5-year-old Prince Hisahito, Akihito’s only grandson. Prince Hisahito has two older sisters (aged 16 and 20) and a famous cousin, 10-year-old Princess Aiko, the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and his embattled wife, Princess Masako.
The Crown Prince has a brother, Prince Akishino (Hisahito’s father), and five cousins, grandchildren of Prince Mikasa. All of these cousins are princesses and all are in their twenties except for one, who just turned 30. In other words, apart from Prince Hisahito, all of the young members of the Imperial family are females who are either of marriageable age or will be within a decade. Given that Princess Masako was born in 1963 and Princess Akishino (Hisahito’s mother) in 1966, any further additions to the family would appear unlikely.
Under the current Imperial House Act, female members of the household cannot accede to the throne and may only retain their Imperial status if they marry other Imperials. As the above family tree makes clear, there are simply no young males in the family available, even if cousin-marrying was deemed an acceptable option. Thus, in order for the princesses to have families of their own, they must marry “commoners” and abandon their royal status.
Moreover, since members of the Imperial family are prohibited by law from adopting children, there is a very real prospect that in the not-too-distant future the Japanese Imperial household will be reduced to little more than a single nuclear family headed by Prince Hisahito and his wife.
Under current law, if all of the princesses marry out of the monarchy, Hisahito would quite literally be the only one left in the household to perform a myriad of state functions and religious ceremonies. He and his lucky spouse would also have to bear the intense pressure of producing male heirs to continue the lineage, a burden that reportedly drove his aunt, Princess Masako, to the brink of despair.
The onerous responsibility imposed by state functions on the Emperor should not be underestimated. Some of them, such as appointing the prime minister, receiving foreign ambassadors and promulgating new legislation, are mandated by the Constitution. Other members of the Imperial family thus play an important role not just as a source of potential heirs, but also as proxies for the Emperor when he is unavailable due to illness or other commitments. During Akihito’s recent hospitalization the Crown Prince performed state functions in his place.
At a recent press conference Prince Akishino suggested there should be a “retirement age” after which the Emperor should perform only constitutional functions, leaving the rest of the Imperial family to handle the many other public duties not specified in the Constitution (there are no provisions in the law allowing emperors to retire completely before death). Yet even this would not be a long-term solution if there are no other Imperials around to share the burden. While the constitutional roles performed by the Emperor are formalities, if neither he nor any lawful proxies are available to perform them, a constitutional crisis is possible nonetheless.
As for succession, that having a baby boy remains a matter of fate has been demonstrated by the situation of the current Crown Prince and Princess Masako, not to mention numerous Imperial predecessors, who in days past were at least aided by the availability of official concubines. Akihito’s grandfather and great-grandfather, the Meiji and Taisho Emperors, were both born to concubines (a status that would have rendered them ineligible for the throne under current law).
An obvious solution would be to amend the Imperial House Act so that women can retain their Imperial status after marriage and even accede to the throne. Some readers may feel deja vu if they were in Japan in the mid-noughts, when it was becoming apparent that Princess Masako was not going to produce a son, resulting in a spirited debate about changing the law to allow for female emperors. Prince Hisahito’s birth in 2006 silenced this dialogue by removing the immediate prospect of a complete failure of succession. However, it did not resolve the longer-term problem of ensuring an adequate supply of male heirs in future generations, or address the prospect of the Imperial family becoming so diminished in size as to render it nonviable as an institution.
In any case, amending the law is not as simple as it seems. Before the war the Imperial House Act — the rules of the Imperial household — was ostensibly prepared by the Emperor himself and was thus coequal with the Meiji Constitution, meaning it was not subject to interference by Diet legislation. This is why the current Constitution specifically refers to the Act, clearly subordinating both it and the Emperor to representative democracy. It is a law which thus carries a lot of historical baggage that may render amending it far more politically controversial than might otherwise be apparent.
Second, although a law that only allows for male emperors may seem terribly traditional, it is actually a modern innovation. Japan has had a small number of female emperors, the most recent being the Empress Go-Sakuramachi, who reigned from 1762 to 1770. However, all of Japan’s empresses were effectively placeholders, unmarried or widowed Imperials with no children of their own eligible to succeed to the throne. At the end of their reigns, the next emperors were drawn from male members from different branches of a much larger Imperial tree. The real issue facing the Japanese government today, therefore, is not whether a woman can be emperor (for which there is a historical precedent), but whether the Imperial lineage can be continued through the children of a female emperor (for which there is not).
Even if the law were amended to allow Princess Aiko to become Empress after Naruhito’s reign, it would not solve the ultimate succession problem unless the change also made her children eligible for the throne. Such an amendment would represent an unprecedented revolutionary change in one of Japan’s most tradition-bound institutions. Akihito is the 125th in a supposedly unbroken line of emperors who can trace their descendants directly back to Japan’s founding deities (historians naturally question some aspects of this pedigree).
Because of this history, the Emperor has effectively been the hereditary pope of the Shinto religion for far longer than he has been the constitutional symbol of Japan’s postwar state. The start of Akihito’s reign in 1989 was marked with a ceremony at which he was invested with the sacred Imperial regalia that the mythical Emperor Jimmu supposedly received from the sun goddess herself. The following year he participated in a ritual harvest ceremony in which he purportedly communed directly with the gods.
Accordingly, dramatic changes to the way the Imperial family does things may have religious and cultural ramifications that could trigger resistance from conservative politicians and other traditional sectors of Japanese society. This may sound terribly anachronistic to Westerners accustomed to widely accepted principles of gender-neutrality, yet it should be remembered that some European monarchies still retain a traditional preference for male kings — and where are all those female popes, cardinals and archbishops again?
One option that has been suggested by conservative politician Takeo Hiranuma would be to restore the status of those members of the 11 branches of the Imperial family that were rendered commoners by reforms during the American Occupation. While this would ensure a greater pool of male heirs to the throne, the process would seem likely to trigger all sorts of issues of equality and freedom (some Imperial descendants might not want to live in a fishbowl), not to mention a sudden increase in the size of the Imperial family, which many Japanese people might find difficult to accept.
The Emperor himself is reported to be in favor of changes that would at least allow for princesses to retain their Imperial status after marriage. However, he cannot openly advocate anything without violating the constitutional prohibition on his involvement in government. Furthermore, Princess Masako is rumored to be opposed to reform, possibly because she may want her daughter, Princess Aiko, to someday leave the Imperial family, an institution that by most accounts has made her miserable.
With such deep traditions and complexities involved, small wonder then that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has apparently chosen to punt on the issue, with the government reportedly moving forward with possible changes to allow princesses to retain their status after marriage, but not going so far as to contemplate female Imperials or their children acceding to the throne. While this limited step may help ensure enough Imperials to perform official state functions, particularly as Akihito grows older, it fails to address the longer-term problem of a shrinking pool of potential heirs to the throne.
Whatever is done, however, needs to be done soon, since once the young princesses start marrying out of the family, it will be that much harder (not to mention unfair) to make changes in the law that would result in siblings or cousins being treated differently.
In a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, Princess Akiko, the eldest of the unmarried princesses (and also the first female Imperial to get a Ph.D.) indicated that since childhood she had been raised with the understanding that she would become a commoner upon marriage. Now, however, this very basic assumption in her life is uncertain. While she is willing to continue her public duties as an Imperial after marriage if the law is changed, it is not just an issue for her, but for potential partners as well. Thus, if there is going to be a decision for change, “I would like it to be made soon,” she said.
Perhaps the government will eventually turn to the difficult prospect of overturning centuries of male-dominated Imperial traditions. But by then whatever solutions are available may be too little, too late. Such a result might also be symbolic.
Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org