National | The Argument

Female ascension? Imperial institution thrives due to change

by Carol Gluck

Special to The Japan Times

The Argument is a new feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding on contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints. This week’s topic is: Should Japan allow females to ascend the throne?

Other stances on the issue:


One of the reasons for the imperial institution’s remarkable longevity and continuity is that it has changed over time. If the imperial institution had never changed its customs or rules or processes of succession, it would not have survived. The current imperial institution is a product of a history of such changes.

So it can change again — that is how history works. Change doesn’t mean the institution will disappear or have its traditions violated. In fact, it means the opposite, enabling it to continue into the future.

There are multiple contexts within which history and change happens.

One of them is the issue facing the imperial family now — that of providing for enough potential successors to the throne. This is the demographic issue many royal families face.

The second factor is public opinion. Any changes in the future would respond in part to changes in society at large, something of no small importance in a democratic society. Polls show that much of the Japanese public would accept a woman on the throne.

The third context is the way the imperial apparatus, in this case the Imperial Household Agency, comes into play to foster or resist change, for example, making it possible for women to remain in the family after marriage.

Another aspect is the view of imperial family members themselves. They may not necessarily voice their opinions, but express their inclinations in other ways. Whether or not their opinions are explicitly taken into account, it is in this day and age a factor.

The fifth context is the government, or the politics of institutional change. After all, it was under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the Diet passed the one-off law that enabled Emperor Akihito to abdicate, a law that also mentioned the need to inquire into the matter of imperial succession. All these factors together will be involved in how the historical process plays out.

There will always be the people who are dead set against change. The general public seems to be fine with a woman on the throne. I have no idea what the imperial family thinks. The demographic issue is a fact, one common to any royal succession that relies on direct male descendants, which is not Japanese tradition but a product of the modern imperial system. As for the government, it will have to consider both the views of its supporters and also of those of the electorate.

It’s a political, social and cultural process, in which a juxtaposition of all these contending opinions and forces is at play.

Whatever happens, change will be incremental. It will not overturn the system, but rather adjust it to the needs of the time.

For example, imperial custom changed when Michiko Shoda — now Empress Emerita Michiko — married into the imperial family as the first nonaristocratic woman to do so in modern times. Later Masako Owada, the current Empress Masako, who was not only a commoner but also a career woman, followed in her footsteps. Emperor Akihito took up imperial activities and engaged with society in ways quite different from his father.

Emperor Akihito’s abdication is another example of the historical process of the imperial institution responding to a certain moment and a certain force of history. Abdication was not considered a possibility in the modern period, yet there was now a general consensus in place that resulted in a law which made one-time abdication possible without changing the existing legal framework.

The imperial institution survived the way it did because for centuries the wheels of institutional change rolled along the rails of continuity.

My guess is that the people involved will thread the needle in such a way that whatever changes they make do not violate the historical nature of the imperial institution.

The bottom line is: If you want continuity, you must have change.

As told to staff writer Sakura Murakami

Carol Gluck is a Columbia University professor specializing in modern Japanese history.

The Argument: Should Japan allow females to ascend the throne?