Despite the urgent need to address the shrinking imperial family to maintain a stable line of succession, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been slow to tackle the issue, wary of a resurgence of arguments in favor of allowing those in the maternal bloodline to ascend to the throne.
The Imperial House Law stipulates that the throne be assumed only by male imperial family members in the paternal bloodline.
After the ascension of Emperor Naruhito, 59, on Wednesday, there are only three heirs to the throne. Next in line is now Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor’s 53-year-old brother. He is followed by Prince Hisahito, the crown prince’s 12-year-old son. Prince Hitachi, Emperor Emeritus Akihito’s 83-year-old brother, is third in line.
No female members of the family were present at Wednesday’s Kenji to Shokei no Gi ceremony, in which the new emperor assumed the imperial regalia and seals.
This was partly because the Abe administration gave consideration to concerns among conservatives that allowing female members to attend the key ceremony might be taken as a sign of support for those in the maternal bloodline ascending to the throne, sources said.
Measures aimed at securing stable imperial succession were hotly debated in the early 2000s, as no boys had been born into the imperial family since the birth of Crown Prince Akishino in 1965.
In 2005, an advisory panel to the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called for allowing female imperial family members or those in the maternal bloodline to assume the throne. In its report, the panel warned that the number of male imperial family members in the paternal bloodline would continue to decline.
Also considering women’s increasing participation in society, the panel concluded that it would be extremely difficult to maintain imperial succession under the current rules and that it was indispensable to pave a way for reigning empresses or emperors from the maternal bloodline.
The panel’s recommendations, however, were met with objections from conservatives including Abe, who was then chief Cabinet secretary.
Conservatives highly valued the fact that there had not been an emperor from the maternal bloodline in history, although there have been some women on the throne.
Instead of adopting the panel’s recommendations, conservatives called for reinstating imperial family status to those who left the family in 1947 under the direction of the Allied Occupation.
With discussions on ways to secure stable imperial succession at a stalemate, Prince Hisahito was born in 2006.
The issue appeared to be temporarily forgotten during Abe’s first tenure as prime minister from September 2006 to September 2007.
Under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, between September 2011 and December 2012, however, the government moved to promote discussions on allowing female imperial family members to maintain their imperial status even after marrying commoners.
But this initiative was also shelved after Abe returned to power in December 2012.
In a supplementary resolution attached to the special law allowing for the abdication of Emperor Akihito, the Diet urged the government to promptly tackle the issue of securing stable succession, claiming that it must not waste any time in addressing the issue.
Still, the Abe administration maintains the position that the issue must be considered carefully.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga suggested that the government is unlikely to begin to work on the issue before autumn, when many rituals related to the new emperor’s enthronement will take place.
“If the administration begins to work on the issue, it will only pretend to do so,” a government source said. “It would take decades to reach any conclusion.”