With Wednesday’s ascension of Emperor Naruhito following his father’s abdication, questions are now being asked about the roles women will play in the imperial family amid concerns over future successions and the imperial male bloodline, and how public duties should be shouldered in an ever-shrinking household.
Under the 1947 Imperial House Law, only men descended through the male line can ascend to the throne. Women who marry commoners must leave the imperial family.
Of the current 18 imperial family members including Emperor Emeritus Akihito, 85, and Empress Emerita Michiko, 84, who no longer perform official duties, 13 are women.
At present, there are only three heirs to the throne — Emperor Naruhito’s younger brother Crown Prince Akishino, 53, his son Prince Hisahito, 12, and the emperor’s uncle Prince Hitachi, 83.
Princess Mako, 27, the elder daughter of the crown prince, may abandon her imperial status in the near future upon marriage to Kei Komuro, 27, her boyfriend from her university days.
Princess Aiko, the 17-year-old only child of the emperor, would be entitled to assume the throne in a British or Dutch monarchy where the eldest child regardless of gender is the first in line to become the king or queen. But the princess is barred from succeeding her father under current Japanese law.
Experts are sounding the alarm that the imperial line may disappear completely if the Imperial House Law is not revised. Concerns also exist that should women marry out of the household, the burden of official duties will fall onto a smaller number of family members.
With Emperor Naruhito, 59, and Empress Masako, 55, taking on the duties previously held by Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, the new imperial couple’s key functions will be handed down to Crown Prince Akishino, who will retain part of his previous duties, and 52-year-old Crown Princess Kiko.
Some duties formerly performed by the crown prince and crown princess will be passed to Princess Mako. After she leaves the imperial family upon marriage, her younger sister, Princess Kako, 24, is expected to perform them.
To address the situation, some experts suggest either reducing the number of public duties or increasing the number of those who can do them by allowing female imperial family members to retain their imperial status even after marriage to commoners.
The government, with an eye on lightening the load of public duties on the family members, has periodically considered revising the Imperial House Law to allow females to ascend the throne or to establish their own branches of the imperial family by letting them stay in the household after marriage.
In 2005, an expert panel called for a recognition of matrilineal succession and a revision to the law to allow the imperial couple’s first born, regardless of gender, to ascend the throne.
But the impetus was halted with the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006. He was the first male member of the imperial family born in nearly 41 years.
Debate on the launch of female branches has also been stymied by opposition from conservatives, who represent the core support base of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and claim it could pave the way for women members to succeed to the throne or those with female lineage to do so.
Of all 126 emperors so far — including several mythical emperors many historians believe actually didn’t exist — eight women who were all born to the male lineage of the imperial family have ascended to the throne.
A one-off law enacted in 2017 to allow Emperor Emeritus Akihito’s abdication adopted a nonbinding resolution for the government to consider measures ensuring stable imperial successions without a deadline.
In March, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government would immediately begin studying after Emperor Naruhito ascended the throne whether to allow female members to remain in the imperial family after marrying commoners.
But Abe is seen as negative toward an early start to discussions to ensure stable imperial successions. The prime minister in the past called for the return of distant blood relatives — specifically, the members of 11 collateral branches that left the imperial family in 1947.
The prime minister and his supporters say because the throne has consistently, for the most part, over history been passed down through the male line, they believe it should continue the same way.
“The principle behind imperial successions up to the current 126th monarch is that they were all of the male bloodline,” argues Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor of constitutional law at Reitaku University.
“Historically speaking, the succession principle based only on male lineage has firmly established the status of emperors. Will a future emperor with female lineage be considered legitimate? We should not confuse imperial succession with modern society’s trend toward gender equality and women’s empowerment,” he said.
Itsuo Sonobe, a former Supreme Court justice who was an acting head of the expert panel in 2005, said he disagrees. “Without accepting women emperors or female branches, Japan could face the crisis of the imperial household’s demise,” he said. “Globally speaking, there are queens and female prime ministers. But Japan is still a male-centered society and it is discouraging.”
In a Kyodo News poll conducted last December, 84 percent said they would support women becoming emperors and 76 percent were favorable toward establishing female branches of the family.
Female imperial family members can play powerful roles by attracting public interest through their exposure to the media and help keep the imperial household relevant in a modern society, points out Ayuu Ishida, a professor of media culture at Momoyama Gakuin University.
Many younger-generation female imperial family members engage in duties by making the most of their international, educational or professional experiences.
In a first for female members who married commoners, Ayako Moriya, 28, the youngest daughter of Emperor Emeritus Akihito’s late cousin, retained her honorary titles at two organizations even after leaving the imperial family upon marriage last October.
Some think she could be a model for female members of the family to retain their previous duties regardless of their marital status.
Masahiro Yamada, a professor of sociology at Chuo University, said unlike Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, who usually engaged with the public as a couple, Emperor Naruhito will perform public functions on his own as his wife, Empress Masako, a Harvard- and Oxford-educated former diplomat suffers from adjustment disorder.
Still, he said, the general public will soon get used to it.
“Modern society attaches importance to work-life balance, and if the imperial household is keeping up with the times, that is also necessary for both the emperor and the imperial family,” he said. “The emperor and empress should each do what they can do.”