The death of Prince Mikasa — the 100-year-old uncle of Emperor Akihito who was one of only five men in line for the Chrysanthemum throne — has once again put the spotlight on the issue of Imperial succession and the dwindling size of the Imperial family.
After the prince’s death Thursday, Imperial Household Agency Grand Steward Shinichiro Yamamoto acknowledged at a regular news conference that the succession issue is a problem and something that poses “a major challenge.”
Behind the scenes, the agency has called on the government to debate ways to secure a stable Imperial succession protocol, including the possible enthronement of female members, accession by heirs of female lineage, or the establishment of female branches of the Imperial family.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, however, has not asked a government panel studying the Emperor’s possible abdication to deal with such topics due to their lower priority and fears of how long the discussions will last.
The prince’s death leaves only four eligible heirs to the throne. They are, in order, Crown Prince Naruhito, 56; his younger brother, Prince Akishino, 50; Prince Hisahito, 10; and the Emperor’s 80-year-old brother, Prince Hitachi. Only male members of the family line can ascend the throne under the 1947 Imperial House Law.
In the past 15 years, the Imperial family has had just two births — Princess Aiko, the 14-year-old daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako, and Prince Hisahito, who is Prince Akishino’s son. Seven members have left the family due to death or marriage, bringing the total to 19.
The panel was established last month to discuss how to alleviate the burden on the 82-year-old Emperor following his rare video message in August, in which he expressed his readiness to abdicate should his health deteriorate in the future.
At present, only posthumous succession is allowed as the Imperial House Law lacks a provision for abdication.
More than a decade ago, there was intense debate under the government of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about the possibility of revising the Imperial House Law to enable female members or heirs of female lineage to ascend the throne.
Koizumi eventually gave up on submitting a bill on the matter in September 2006, a move that many believe was linked to the birth of Prince Hisahito — the first new male member in 41 years — the same month.
Abe, who was chief Cabinet secretary at the time, played a key role in the decision, according to sources close to the matter.
Koizumi was concerned, despite the birth of Prince Hisahito, that Imperial succession may become unsustainable in the future, the sources said.
Abe, for his part, pushed for dropping the idea of seeking an amendment, saying, “Now is not time to revise the law,” the sources added.
“The idea of maintaining the Imperial throne only by heirs to male lineage is close to (Abe’s) strong belief,” said a source from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Abe is known to be against extending eligibility for the throne to Imperial family members of female lineage and enabling female members to stay within the family after marriage.
Abe said in a contributed article to monthly publication Bungei Shunju’s February 2012 edition that he was “clearly opposed” to having a female emperor.
During a Diet session this past February, Abe said it will be important to consider “the weight of the fact that succession by heirs of male lineage has continued without exception since ancient times.”
In 2012, the government led by the former Democratic Party of Japan, the opposition predecessor of the Democratic Party, studied the idea of establishing female branches of the Imperial family so women could stay within the family after marriage.
However, their research drew opposition from the conservative electorate.
The debates pertaining to those issues died down as Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power later in the year, with Abe expressing a negative stance to such ideas.
During a news conference on Thursday morning immediately after Prince Mikasa passed away, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga ruled out the possibility of adding the issue of how to grapple with the decreasing number of Imperial family members to the topics to be discussed by the government panel.
Abe’s government is seeking to avoid long debate as it aims to submit a relevant bill to an ordinary Diet session next year to make it possible for only Emperor Akihito to abdicate, according to a ranking government official.
Later Thursday, Suga stressed the importance of measures dealing with the aging and shrinking of the Imperial family, saying at an afternoon news conference they are “problems that should not be unnecessarily shelved,” but he did not elaborate or clarify when the discussions would start.
The issue of sustainability of Imperial succession was not touched on in the panel’s second session Thursday, despite the fact it was held hours after the prince’s death, according to a government official who took part.
A former senior government official who took part in discussions over the revision of the Imperial House Law said, “The crisis of the Imperial household will worsen if the Abe administration doesn’t discuss the matter.”