An advisory panel of six intellectuals will hold its first meeting Monday to address a critical issue facing the Imperial system: Emperor Akihito’s wish to abdicate sometime in the next few years due to his advanced age.
These discussions could drastically transform the future of the world’s oldest royal system, which has a dearth of male heirs and faces concerns over the sustainability of the male-only succession line.
However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to be trying to limit the scope of the panel’s discussion to avoid any controversy over politically sensitive issues that could enrage conservative nationalists, his core supporters.
Many nationalists have opposed allowing an emperor to abdicate because of advanced age. They argue that if an emperor is allowed to quit of his own volition, it could destabilize the Imperial system in the long run.
They also fear that voices calling for allowing a female to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne may gain political momentum if the Diet starts deliberating a revision of the Imperial House Law, which has no provision allowing an emperor to step down and does not allow a female member of the Imperial family to reign.
“What is most important for the Imperial succession is the succession by a male from the male line,” Shoichi Watanabe, a professor emeritus at Waseda University and an influential nationalistic polemicist, wrote in an essay published Aug. 13.
“The Imperial House Law does not need to be revised. Everything would be fine if someone serves as a regent” if an emperor becomes too old to conduct his duties, Watanabe wrote in the essay that ran in the Sankei Shimbun.
Media polls, however, have suggested an overwhelming 70 to 90 percent of voters support allowing an emperor to abdicate due to advanced age.
As Abe tries to avoid being attacked by both nationalist conservatives and the general public, he reportedly hopes to make Emperor Akihito’s case an exception by enacting a temporary law that would allow him, and him alone, to abdicate, thereby shelving other controversial issues on the Imperial system.
Speculation that Abe was attempting to avoid the controversy was fueled even further when the names of the government panel members were announced Sept. 23.
None of the six are specialists in the history of the Imperial family and all are well-known members of various government advisory panels, which are often criticized as being mere rubber stamps for conclusions already prepared by the government.
“The panel is a gimmick for the Prime Minister’s Office to control the discussion” on Imperial succession, the Asahi Shimbun quoted an unnamed source close to Abe as saying.
Top officials close to Abe who were contacted by The Japan Times have denied that the government has already reached a verdict on what it wants the panel to adopt.
But the officials did admit that they excluded experts with strong opinions capable of splitting the panel and public opinion.
“An expert usually has his or her own strong belief. And those experts have been deeply split” over Imperial succession issues, one of the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have chosen panel members who can find consensus among the people by listening to many outside experts. That’s what we expect from the panel,” the official said.
But experts point out that if the Imperial system is to be maintained, succession issues will eventually re-emerge and force the government and the Diet to carry out drastic reform.
Currently, Prince Hisahito, now 10 years old, is the only heir who has not yet come of age.
Princess Aiko, now 14, and her cousins, Princess Kako, 21, and Princess Mako, 24, may give birth to a son in the future.
But such males will never be eligible for the throne because they would be from the female line. Meanwhile, under the Imperial House Law, princesses are obliged to leave the Imperial family and become a commoner if they marry someone outside the Imperial family.
Thus, the fate of the male-only Imperial system depends on whether Prince Hisahito and a future wife will someday produce a son. Looking back, countless emperors wouldn’t have been able to fulfill this critical mission without the concubine system, which is not available today.
The concubine system was abolished by Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, who died in 1989.
In 2006, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi tried to revise the Imperial House Law to allow a female to become a reigning empress because at that time the Imperial family had no young male heir.
But Koizumi eventually gave up on his plan after Princess Kiko, the wife of Prince Akishino, the younger brother of Crown Prince Naruhito, gave birth to Prince Hisahito later that year.
Abe, then a deputy Cabinet secretary, is believed to be the key person who persuaded Koizumi to drop the plan — to the delight of conservative nationalists.
Isao Tokoro, a professor emeritus of Imperial studies at Kyoto Sangyo University, said any attempt to revise the Imperial House Law quickly would spark controversy and surely end in failure, making it impossible to enact any reform for years.
Tokoro said it is generally believed enacting a temporary law to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate without revising the Imperial House Law is Abe’s only realistic political option for Abe, given the fact that the Emperor is 82.
Tokoro pointed out that some of the key articles of the Imperial House Law are intertwined with each other, and revising one article would likely to lead to discussion of revising others as well.
“The Imperial House Law was enacted 70 years ago and many problems have been left untouched. But you can’t fix them all in just a few years,” he said.
Conservatives say that the current Imperial House Law allows a regent — most likely a crown prince — to serve in an emperor’s stead if he becomes unable to fulfill his public duties.
If the government fails to carry out reform at this time, Japan in about 20 years may have a 100-year-old emperor and a crown prince of nearly 80 years old, Tokoro pointed out.
“That will be just unreasonable. That’s why the issue of abdication emerged,” he said, adding that a temporary law should be enacted quickly to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate.
At the same time, the government should conduct studies over several years and thereby carry out reforms to address long-term issues in the Imperial system, he said.
Tokoro also pointed out that media polls have shown clearly that a vast majority of voters sympathize with the Emperor and believe he should be allowed to quit because of his advanced age.
“In this aging society, this is an issue that affects all organizations in which a (leader) can live as long as 90 years (or so). Can such organizations see a smooth transition to the next generation? That’s the question,” Tokoro said.