NHK has become the go-to media outlet for scoops on the Imperial family. In July, the public broadcaster was the first to break the news that the Emperor wanted to step down and, last month, it was the first to report Princess Mako’s intention to marry a man she met at university. Both stories annoyed the government, which prefers that disclosure of information about Imperial matters follow strict protocols.
The press’ main excuse for ignoring official channels in this way is that the public likes the Emperor and the Imperial family, so the scoops are popular. It should be noted, however, that one of these channels is the Imperial Household Agency, which controls all interactions with the palace.
The aforementioned stories were the results of deliberate leaks from an inside source, so despite initial IHA complaints that reporting them was premature, the agency seems to be at odds with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The IHA is beholden to the Imperial family before it is beholden to the government, and it follows that it was the wishes of persons in the Imperial family that these two stories make their way to the people before passing through the LDP filter.
This convoluted conduit of intention is necessary because, legally speaking, what the Imperial family wants is immaterial. Any expression on the part of the Emperor with regard to his status and that of his relations is inherently political in nature, and, according to the Constitution, the symbolic head of the country is supposed to be above politics, or at least outside of it.
But the Emperor has always taken his symbolic leadership more seriously than has the LDP. In another scoop, this one from the Mainichi Shimbun, a source within the IHA said that the Emperor expressed displeasure with the LDP abdication study panel’s implication that it would prefer the Emperor simply sit behind a curtain and pray for the nation.
It’s what the abdication, approved as a one-off event by the Diet on Friday, is all about. Due to his advanced age, the Emperor does not think he can effectively perform his self-appointed tasks, which take him out of the palace and among his subjects as well as onto the world stage. He wants his son to take these over without breaking stride before he dies. The public fully supports this wish, thus pitting the government against the palace, the media and the people.
The story of Princess Mako’s betrothal follows a similar route of intrigue. Apparently, the media knew about the boyfriend a long time ago and said nothing until someone in the IHA told NHK it was OK to report it. During a discussion of the scoop on the May 23 installment of Bunka Hoso’s “Golden Radio” program, cultural critic Maki Fukasawa speculated that Princess Mako herself wanted to affect discussion of the abdication issue with regard to the status of female members of the Imperial family by conveying her intention to wed a commoner.
“To me that means women in the royal family think they have to get married as soon as possible,” Fukusawa said. Due to the shortage of male heirs at the moment, rules could be changed to allow women to stay in the palace even after they get hitched. According to the Imperial House Law (Koshitsu Tenpan), women must leave the Imperial family if they marry outside of it. A May 19 Asahi Shimbun article claimed that some people in the government say they would be happy to allow female members to remain after they marry if their mates are also royalty, which would mean reinstating Imperial branches that were dropped after World War II by order of the occupying Americans.
In an article in the June 1 issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, a palace reporter said that Princess Mako’s mother, Princess Kiko, was once in favor of marrying her two daughters off to former royalty if it would keep them in the Imperial household, but once Princess Mako confirmed that she will wed a commoner, Kiko changed her mind. Nevertheless, it seems Kiko thought that female members could contribute to the heir pool, an idea that is anathema to conservatives in the government, which are lead by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and whose opinions are articulated by the lobbying group Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi). They are worried that the abdication issue could clear a path for female succession
Currently, emperors not only have to be male, they have to be produced by the male line, in the present case either by Crown Prince Naruhito or his brother Prince Akishino, Princess Mako’s father. Abe does not want to allow succession to the throne of heirs produced by anyone from the female line of the Imperial family, since that could conceivably lead to a female emperor. It doesn’t matter that, in a Kyodo News Service survey, 86 percent of the respondents said they don’t mind a female emperor. Since the Emperor is constitutionally defined as the symbol of the people, it matters what the people think, but to Abe, it’s all about the imagined purity of the patriarchal bloodline, a concept that seems to have no meaning to the average person.
Then there’s the idea that female members should be allowed to continue performing royal tasks after they marry, “the same way as civil servants,” as one professor put it to Shukan Shincho.
In the end, opposition parties attached a resolution to the abdication bill that said the government would discuss this matter in the future. However, the LDP made sure to add a phrase that took female succession out of the debate. Since these talks will not start until after the Emperor abdicates, which probably won’t occur until the end of 2018 at the earliest, it’s easy to predict that they will just be postponed indefinitely. Abe reportedly is opposed to such discussions.
By that time, Princess Mako will have married, thus leaving the Imperial family minus one working member, a development that “worries the Imperial Household Agency,” according to an editorial in the Chugoku Shimbun. Keeping living symbols relevant and busy is hard work, but somebody has to do it.