Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe backed off Wednesday from their earlier pledge to quickly get a bill passed that would allow a female on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Their about-face came a day after the Imperial Household Agency announced that Princess Kiko, the wife of Emperor Akihito’s second son, is pregnant. She is expected to have the baby in September or October.
Koizumi had maintained through Tuesday that he wanted the change to the paternal-line Imperial succession system to be enacted during the current Diet session.
But on Wednesday, during a session of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, he said, “It is desirable that each (political) party and the Diet first create a framework for discussion and talk about it calmly and cautiously.
“We will make a decision only after seeing the results” of these discussions, Koizumi said in response to a question from Ryuzo Sasaki of the Democratic Party of Japan, who asked if Koizumi will try to get the bill passed during this legislative session, which is scheduled to end in mid-June.
Abe, the point man for the government-sponsored bill, also declined comment on the state’s self-imposed deadline of this Diet session.
He said during his daily news conference that no decision has been made yet on when the bill would be submitted.
The government was pushing the bill because no boys have been born into the Imperial family since 1965, raising serious concerns over the survival of the male-only Imperial line.
But the news of Princess Kiko’s pregnancy changed the situation overnight, providing ammunition to conservative politicians arguing that the bill should be put on the back burner to allow more time for discussions on the centuries-old system.
If she has a boy, he would be third in line to the throne, following Crown Prince Naruhito, 45, and the princess’ husband, Prince Akishino, 40.
“This is good, bright news,” said Nihon University professor Akira Momochi, an expert on constitutional issues and an advocate of maintaining the paternal-line succession system.
He argued that ending the male-only succession could jeopardize the legitimacy of the Imperial system, which is believed to have been consistently maintained through the paternal bloodline over centuries.
If a female monarch married a commoner and their descendants were allowed to reign, it would be considered a dynastic change, Momochi said.
Now with the expected fall childbirth, the government should withdraw the bill and start debating Imperial succession from scratch, he said.
Koizumi asked an advisory panel last year to come up with a revision of the Imperial House Law to ensure stable succession.
The panel compiled a report in November that recommends revising the law to allow a female and their descendants to ascend to the throne.
The only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako is 4-year old Princess Aiko, who cannot reign under the current male-only system. The Crown Princess has reportedly suffered mental anguish from pressure to give birth to a boy.
Before the end of World War II, the Imperial family managed to secure male heirs with the help of concubines and males of distant families.
But the concubine system was abolished after the war, and most of the distant relatives were forced to give up their Imperial status during the Occupation and are now among the commoner population.
“A birth of only one boy wouldn’t change the situation” over the long term, said Koichi Yokota, a constitutional expert at Ryutsu Keizai University.
The advisory panel has argued that possible future births of boys would not change its conclusion that allowing a female monarch is inevitable if the Imperial system is to survive.
The panel meanwhile ruled out giving the distant Imperial relatives their prewar status, saying more than 60 years have passed since the end of the war and the public would stand for it.
Nihon University’s Momochi criticized this argument, saying the panel from the start was going to recommend allowing a female to reign, and intentionally ignored the idea of restoring the relatives’ prewar Imperial status.
Yokota meanwhile lamented that media coverage has only discussed how the Imperial family system should be maintained, not what the Imperial system really means for Japan.
Koizumi has argued that political debate over Imperial succession should not be used as a political weapon.
“It seems that people have been split over (the succession issue), but I’d like to handle this carefully so that it won’t used as a tool in the struggle for political power,” Koizumi told the Budget Committee.