The royal pregnancy is in the spotlight because no boy has been born to the Imperial family in 41 years, jeopardizing the existence of the male-only emperor system.
Yet even if Princess Kiko, the wife of Prince Akishino, Emperor Akihito’s second son, gives birth to a boy, the succession crisis facing the Imperial family will only be put off for another day, experts say.
Regardless of the baby’s gender, debate over whether to allow a female to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne — a highly sensitive issue — will eventually come up again, because it is one of few realistic choices for ensuring the Imperial family’s long-term survival, they say.
“Even if it’s a boy, chances are high the same debate will emerge again,” said Yuji Otabe, a professor at the Shizuoka University of Welfare and an expert on the Imperial family’s history.
“But people are quite nervous about issues related to the Emperor. I don’t think they would be willing to touch” the issue of a possible female heir until Princess Kiko’s child — if it’s a boy — grows up and is ready to have a child of his own, Otabe said.
Last November, an advisory panel to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi submitted a controversial report proposing that the Imperial Household Law be revised to allow females to ascend the throne. The issue came up because Crown Princess Masako, 42, has reportedly suffered emotional and physical problems brought on by pressure to give birth to a boy.
Koizumi drew up a bill based on the panel’s recommendation, and it was ready to be submitted to the Diet despite opposition from conservative politicians determined to preserve the centuries-old male lineage of Imperial succession.
Then Koizumi shelved the bill when the Imperial Household Agency announced in February that Prince Kiko was pregnant — with a possible male heir.
However, the panel had already argued in its report that based on statistical analysis, the long-term threat to royal succession won’t go away even if one or two boys are born to the Imperial family
Its logic is simple: If the average birthrate in the Imperial family is less than two, the number of males will keep decreasing through the generations. The fertility rate for Japan as a nation hit a record low 1.25 in 2005.
As such, male-only succession is not a stable long-term option, the panel argued.
Indeed, the Imperial family has barely managed to maintain its male-only succession for centuries by relying on a concubine system and allowing relatives on a collateral family line to become emperor when the direct Imperial family did not have a male.
For example, Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) had no male heir with his wife but had 15 children, including five males, with five concubines. Of the five, four died before reaching adulthood, and the one who survived became emperor.
But Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989), known posthumously as Emperor Showa, refused to have a concubine, which led to the postwar abolition of the system.
According to Otabe, Emperor Showa wanted to have a close family atmosphere such as might be found in a Western royal family.
“When he traveled to Europe (in 1921), he was shocked to see a crown prince living together with his father, unlike the (Japanese) Imperial family” in those days, Otabe said.
Soon after Japan’s 1945 defeat in World War II, 11 families on the collateral line, which served as a safety net to produce male heirs for the Imperial family, lost their Imperial status and became ordinary citizens.
Many opponents of the idea of a reigning empress have maintained that the Imperial status of those former relatives should be restored so they can produce a male who would marry a woman from the Imperial family to maintain the paternal line.
But Otabe argued that institutionalizing such a marriage would be a violation of human rights, because such a match would have to take place regardless of whether the participants loved one another.
“I don’t think it would fit the trend now,” he said.
The advisory panel flatly opposed restoring the concubine system and the status of the former Imperial relatives, pointing out the dramatic changes in societal values that have taken place in the postwar era.
Instead, the panel proposed that allowing the oldest child of a crown prince and crown princess, regardless of gender, to take the throne would be the best choice to maintain public affection and respect for the Imperial family.
“During our deliberations, we took account of a host of factors, including the possibility that a son might in the future be born to the Imperial family,” the panel’s recommendation states. “But in light of current social conditions, we judged that the conclusion unveiled herein represents the best choice in terms of what form the succession system should take in the medium to long term.”