The planned engagement of Princess Mako and Kei Komuro, a 25-year-old commoner, has highlighted a critical question facing the Imperial family that is likely to spark public debate: Can the Imperial system survive without drastic reforms to its succession system?
Most experts say no, and that major reforms will eventually be needed if Japan wants to retain the Imperial system.
Article 1 of the Imperial House Law reads: “The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage.”
This means that even if Princess Mako, 25, gives birth to a boy, the child would not be allowed to become an emperor.
The family now has only one young boy, Prince Hisahito, Princess Mako’s 10-year-old brother. If Prince Hisahito’s future wife does not give birth to a boy, it would mean the end of the Imperial blood lineage for good.
In fact, the Imperial family has barely maintained its traditional male-blood lineage succession system over hundreds of years thanks to a concubine system, which was effectively abolished by Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989), posthumously known as Emperor Showa.
When Princess Mako marries Komuro, she will lose her Imperial status because Komuro is a commoner. The number of Imperial family members will thus drop to 18. Of the total, 13 will be women.
Liberal scholars and lawmakers have long called for a revision to the law to allow women to rise to the throne or maintain their Imperial status even if they marry a commoner.
But the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is known as a conservative nationalist, has long been reluctant to implement either of the two reforms.
Asked whether the government would consider revising the law to allow women to retain Imperial status after marriage, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Wednesday it would not, saying it was a matter for discussion among lawmakers in both the Upper and Lower houses.
In the distant past, eight women born to the male lineage of the Imperial family have taken the throne, but they were all unmarried or widows. Their successors were all men in the male line of the family.
This means the male-line succession system has been retained for hundreds of years, according to official records of the Imperial family.
In 1889, the modern Meiji government enacted the old Imperial House Law. For the first time, it stipulated that only men in the male line would be allowed to become emperor.
The current 1947 Imperial House Law has the same restriction.
In early 2006, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi considered revising the law to allow women to take the throne based on a report by experts on the issue compiled the previous year.
At that time, the three grandchildren of Emperor Akihito were all female, and media polls all suggested a vast majority of voters supported the proposed reform.
However Koizumi gave up on the idea after Princess Kiko, Prince Akishino’s wife, gave birth to Prince Hisahito in September 2006. Abe, who was a key aide to Koizumi at the time, reportedly opposed the reform and urged Koizumi to make the decision.