It’s not an easy job, being the emperor of Japan.

Besides hosting dozens of Imperial court ceremonies year-round, Emperor Akihito — alongside Empress Michiko — has to attend numerous meetings and luncheons with foreign dignitaries, and the Imperial Couple embark on numerous trips to visit schools and institutions, and attend festivals all across the nation.

Twice a year, the couple also grant an audience to more than 50 people honored and awarded medals in the government’s spring and autumn decorations.

For the Emperor, this all comes as part of the package of symbolizing Japan and the unity of its people, as stated in the Constitution.

But the Emperor is getting old. He turns 78 on Dec. 23, and has been in poor health recently.

When he was hospitalized for 19 days in November to receive treatment for bronchial pneumonia, concerns were voiced over the future of the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, as there is currently a chronic shortage of heirs to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The Emperor’s oldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, temporarily took over his duties during his time in the hospital.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently announced he plans to seriously consider amending the Imperial Household Law to allow female members to remain in the royal family even if they marry commoners. At present, they are by law no longer part of the Imperial family in such cases, leading to an overall decline in its size.

“From the viewpoint of stabilizing Imperial household activities, I am of the opinion that it is something that needs to be dealt with urgently,” Noda said during a Dec. 1 news conference, stressing the need for national debate.

While the prime minister did not set any deadlines, he indicated the government plans to build a framework to discuss the issue.

But it remains to be seen whether amendments to the Imperial Household Law will be possible.

In recent weeks, conservative lawmakers have expressed concerns over Noda’s willingness to consider allowing female members to remain in the Imperial household, fearing that if they were to wed a commoner and bear offspring, this could potentially dilute the Imperial lineage.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party said on Dec. 8 that there should not be a rush to decide such a delicate matter.

“There lies a danger that basic principles that have supported the Imperial household’s long history and tradition through the male lineage may collapse,” Abe warned.

The monarchy is believed to date back at least 1,000 years, and its lineage is purported to be uninterrupted.

The Imperial dynasty officially practiced polygamy to produce enough offspring to maintain the male line of heirs, but this practice ended in the Taisho Era.

Traditionalists are therefore in a dilemma over whether to maintain the tradition of male-only heirs, or to change the system to secure a sustainable and stable line of successors to the crown.

Takeo Hiranuma of Tachiagare Nippon (Sunrise Party of Japan) said during a Nov. 26 meeting with conservative organizations that the Imperial household’s male line of heirs should be maintained, although he did express a degree of understanding over the need to maintain a sufficient number of members in the Imperial family.

Hiranuma suggested that even if female members were allowed to remain after marrying a commoner, it would be important that they try and marry a fellow royal, even if he is from one of 11 branches of the Imperial family that were disenfranchised in October 1947 during the Occupation, to maintain the male succession.

The exclusion of the 11 branches effectively limited the family’s membership to male heirs of Emperor Taisho (1879-1926).

Hiranuma has suggested that in order to maintain a system of male-only heirs, the disenfranchised families should be reinstated to boost the Imperial family’s size.

Under the law, females in the Imperial household currently have to give up their status, title and allowance upon marrying a commoner. In December 2004, the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Nori, also known as Sayako, married a commoner, relinquishing her title and adopting her husband’s surname, becoming Sayako Kuroda.

Among the 23 current members of the Imperial family, eight are unwed females, six of whom are in their 20s and are expected to follow Kuroda’s path in the near future. Hence the concern over the shrinking of the royal family.

And by the time Prince Akishino’s 5-year-old son, Hisahito, the Emperor’s only grandson and the third in line to the throne, is old enough to assume Imperial duties, many observers say there won’t be enough royals around to support him.

Noda’s recent decision came after an official at the Imperial Household Agency in October advised him to seriously consider the matter.

During a Nov. 30 news conference, Prince Akishino told reporters that a certain number of Imperial family members were necessary to maintain the household.

“When debating the future of the Imperial household, I believe it would be best to consult either myself or His Imperial Highness to canvass our thoughts on the matter,” he said.

But amending the law, which was enacted in 1947, would be no easy matter.

In 2006, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi suggested presenting a bill to the Diet that would have revised the law to allow a woman to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. This was after the wife of the Crown Prince, Crown Princess Masako, gave birth to Princess Aiko.

At that point, no male heir had been born to the Imperial family in 41 years, prompting concerns that there wouldn’t be anyone to succeed the Crown Prince, after he became Emperor.

The debate died down after Princess Kiko, Prince Akishino’s wife, gave birth to Hisahito that September, but the issue was fiercely debated between the opponents and proponents of Koizumi’s proposal.

But even the Imperial family is now saying it needs support.

Referring to the Emperor’s advanced age, fragile health and full schedule, Prince Akishino suggested during the Nov. 30 news conference that a retirement system could be set up to alleviate the burden on emperors once they reach a certain age.

The Emperor in recent years has attended 1.6 times more meetings with foreign dignitaries and ambassadors to Japan than his father, Hirohito, known posthumously as Showa, had in 1975, when he was 75 years old, according the Imperial Household Agency.

He also grants an audience to 4.6 times more Japanese ambassadors annually, and heads out on 2.3 times more outings than his father used to.

“People tend to begin encountering difficulties doing many things once they reach a certain age. I believe (setting a retirement age) is a good idea,” Prince Akishino said.

Allowing female members to remain in the Imperial family will mean a large sum of money will have to be spent from the national coffers to maintain the lineage, and public finances are already under enormous strain due to the economic slump and reconstruction work in the Tohoku region in the wake of the March 11 disasters.

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