The government will kick off discussions this week that could result in changing the male-only Imperial succession rule which experts say has been practiced for more than 1,000 years.

The key topic of a 10-member advisory panel to the prime minister that holds its first meeting Tuesday is whether to allow a female to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne, whose occupant has come solely from the family’s paternal line.

Many in the government, Diet and public at large support the change, because the very survival of the Imperial family is now in peril: No males have been born to the family for decades.

The panel will discuss measures for a “stable succession,” including revisions of the 1947 Imperial House Law, which stipulates that only a male in the male line can ascend to the throne.

The Imperial family has placed sons and male kin on the throne at least since the mid-eighth century, according to Hiroshi Takahashi, a professor at Shizuoka University of Welfare and a former Kyodo News reporter who has authored books on Imperial family matters.

The provision of the Imperial House Law in question dates back to the Meiji Constitution, promulgated in 1889 and abolished after World War II. Prior to that, there was no law that barred a female monarch.

Records show that eight women reigned as empresses, the most recent being Empress Gosakuramachi, from 1762 to 1770.

But they were believed to have ascended the throne as a brief emergency measure, such as when a crown prince was deemed too young to reign or was forced to postpone enthronement for political reasons.

The throne always went back to a male in the paternal line.

However, the male-only rule is now literally putting the survival of the Imperial family in jeopardy, with no males having been born to the family since the birth of Prince Akishino, the second son of Emperor Akihito, in 1965.

Scholars say this is a logical consequence of the end — during the postwar Allied Occupation — of the practice of having Imperial concubines as well as the abolition of 11 branch households of the Imperial family.

These were two key institutions in ensuring a steady supply of male successors.

Many emperors in the past had difficulty producing a male heir with their wives.

Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) had no male heir with his wife but had 15 children with five concubines. Of the five males born, four died before reaching adulthood, and the one who survived went on to become Emperor Taisho.

“Now that the concubine system is publicly unacceptable, a female-line Imperial succession will be inevitable,” said Masahiro Morioka, a House of Representative member of the Liberal Democratic Party who has been vocal on the issue.

Media opinion polls show that support for allowing a reigning empress has increased sharply in recent decades — apparently reflecting a greater sense of equality between the sexes.

According to a 1975 survey by Nihon Yoron Chosakai, a polling organization set up by Kyodo News and its 38 major member news organizations, 54.7 percent of 2,439 respondents said only a male should reign, against 31.9 percent who would not be averse to a female monarch.

But a 2003 poll by the same organization found only 9.6 percent of 1,895 respondents saying the throne must be the realm of a male, while 76 percent were not averse to a female.

“I think people would welcome a reigning empress,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters in December.

The issue is politically sensitive.

In announcing the plan to launch the advisory panel in late December, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda would not admit — despite repeated questions during a news conference — that the main topic of the panel’s discussions would be on whether, and more likely how, to allow a female to ascend the Imperial throne.

The government carefully chose the timing and wording to not cast the impression that it is actively pushing for a female monarch, although the panel’s mandate is obvious, government sources said.

“All the rightwing forces oppose the idea of a reigning empress,” a senior government official said.

Radical nationalists staunchly argue that the male-only succession must be maintained to preserve tradition in the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy.

And opposition lingers among Shinto-related religious groups.

Since the early times of Shinto, the emperor was revered as a god as well as the chief shaman. Shinto was redefined by the prewar government as a state religion to boost patriotism centered on the emperor.

“It is still possible that (either Crown Prince Naruhito or his brother, Prince Akishino) can father a male, and changes in the order of succession could deprive the existing males in the paternal-line of their current positions. This is a grave problem,” read a Jan. 24 editorial in Jinja Shinpo, a semiofficial periodical of Jinja Honcho (Association of Shinto Shrines), a group of 80,000 Shinto shrines nationwide.

Shinto groups have traditionally served as powerful vote-gathering machines for the LDP. More than 200 Diet members have joined a lawmakers’ liaison body with the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership, which is closely linked to Jinja Honcho.

But Takao Ina, head of public relations at Jinja Honcho, said the group has not expressed an official view on the issue of a reigning empress, and the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership has yet to start organized lobbying for LDP lawmakers.

Taro Nakayama, a veteran LDP lawmaker and chairman of the Lower House research committee on constitutional issues, said he sees no particular LDP opposition to having a female monarch.

“There is no choice but to revise the Imperial House Law because otherwise the Imperial family will die out,” Nakayama said.

Other political parties have also not put up any opposition.

The Democratic Party of Japan supports allowing a female on the throne. The Japanese Communist Party, long an advocate of abolishing the emperor system altogether, recently expressed support for the launch of a government panel on the succession issue.

Despite favorable public opinion and political momentum, technical problems still remain if the way is to be cleared for a female monarch, experts said.

One is the order of succession. Monarchies in other countries, including Britain, Denmark and Spain, give a male priority, although a female can also reign.

Sweden, Belgium and Norway meanwhile give priority to the oldest child of the main family, regardless of gender.

Princess Aiko, 3, is the only child born so far to the 44-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito. If legal changes are made to pave the way for her to succeed the throne, she might be in her 40s or 50s by that time, already married and possibly with offspring who would be young adults, Waseda University professor Yoshitaka Shima said.

Some might then argue that if she has a son, he should become emperor instead, said Shima, who believes a male should have priority because it would be more in line with the Imperial tradition.

Takahashi of Shizuoka University of Welfare said the oldest child should be given priority regardless of gender because that offspring’s relationship with the emperor would be clearer and closer, and thus would help the successor win public adoration.

In any case, said the LDP’s Nakayama, not much time is left for discussion because Princess Aiko has turned 3, the age when, according to Imperial family tradition, a future monarch would start receiving special education required for ascending the throne.

The advisory panel is to compile a report on succession by autumn.

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