The future of Imperial succession

The Abe administration has effectively secured the endorsement of both the ruling coalition and the opposition camp for special legislation to pave the way for the abdication of 83-year-old Emperor Akihito. It plans to submit the proposal to the Diet later this month so that the bill can be enacted by the end of the current legislative session in June. Instead of institutionalizing Imperial abdication, which is not provided for in succession rules under the Imperial House Law, this will be a one-off law applicable only to Emperor Akihito, who expressed his wish last summer to retire due to advanced age and increasing frailty.

Once the legislation gets the Diet’s nod, the government is expected to set the date for the Emperor’s abdication in an ordinance — likely to be in late 2018 — and Crown Prince Naruhito’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

That, however, will leave open yet another issue over Imperial succession that was once again highlighted as the Emperor’s wish directed public attention to the situation surrounding the Imperial family — that it, like the nation’s population, is shrinking and aging with fewer newborns, and the current male-only succession rules could put the family’s future in doubt.

A draft resolution now being prepared for adoption alongside the abdication legislation will call on the government to consider and report to the Diet measures to “secure stable Imperial succession,” but likely without any deadline for such efforts. The government and lawmakers should not wait to discuss such measures, including opening up the Imperial succession to maternal lineage and reigning empresses — an idea rejected by conservatives who favor sticking to the paternal lineage tradition.

Aside from Emperor Akihito, there are currently 18 members of the Imperial family, and only four of them are male heirs in line to the throne. Once the 57-year-old Crown Prince ascends the throne, three males will be left — his brother, Prince Akishino, age 51; Akishino’s son, Prince Hisahito, age 10; and Prince Hitachi, the 81-year-old younger brother of Emperor Akihito. Prince Akishino will be next in line to the throne, but Prince Hisahito, the first boy born to the Imperial family in 40 years, is the only male in his generation. Of the 14 women in the family, seven are unmarried. Under current rules, they will leave the family once they marry outside of the family. That points to the prospect of further declines in the number of Imperial family members in the years ahead.

After Emperor Akihito expressed his wish to abdicate in a televised video message last August, the Abe administration’s response effectively ruled out amending the Imperial House Law, favoring instead one-time legislation that would apply solely to the current emperor. It was deemed that amending the Imperial House Law would take too long, but there was also speculation that Abe was trying to avoid expanding the discussions to address changing the succession rules under the law. A panel of experts commissioned by the Abe administration to discuss the Emperor’s abdication did not take up the issue of changing the succession rules.

In 2005, a government panel of experts submitted a report to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi suggesting that empresses be permitted to reign and that maternal lineage succession be allowed. But discussions on the matter were put to rest when Prince Hisahito was born in 2006, and Abe, who took over from Koizumi for his first stint as prime minister, never revisited the issue. In 2012, the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration released a report on the question of allowing female members of the Imperial family to remain in the family when they marry — which would leave open the possibility of an emperor via maternal lineage — but that discussion was again shelved when the Liberal Democratic Party led by Abe swept back into power.

When the ruling coalition sought the opposition camp’s cooperation for uniform Diet approval of the abdication legislation, lawmakers adopted a position urging the government to promptly consider measures to ensure stable succession into the future, including the creation of Imperial family houses to be led by female members marrying those outside the family. But reference to that option is omitted in the draft Diet resolution now being prepared.

In acknowledging the need for measures to secure Imperial succession into the future, Abe himself has indicated that there could be an option for members of the former Imperial houses who left the family in 1947 — right after Japan’s World War II defeat — to return to the family so that their males can become potential heirs. Doubts have been raised, however, about allowing people who have been out of the Imperial family for decades to return. That option was deemed “difficult” in the 2005 report by the experts panel under the Koizumi administration.

One thing that’s certain is that the questions surrounding the Imperial family and its future will not just disappear. The government should not shy away from public discussions on how to ensure stability in Imperial succession.