National | The Argument

Female ascension? Nothing in Constitution forbids females from ascending Chrysanthemum Throne

by Koichi Yokota

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:


Prohibiting female members of the imperial family or their children from succeeding the Chrysanthemum Throne is unconstitutional.

The Imperial Household Law, which stipulates that only men whose fathers are emperors — dankei danshi — can succeed the throne runs counter to the principle that men and women be treated equally, as set forth in Article 14 of the Constitution.

Scholars argue that the emperor has a special status under the law, given the family’s long history and his unique position as being a “symbol” of the state, putting him “above the law” at times, meaning certain principles of the Constitution do not apply to the emperor.

However, exceptions to constitutional principles should be kept to a minimum. Those principles should also be applied to the emperor as much as possible — and that includes gender equality.

The reasons that have been given to justify disallowing women from the throne by past administrations in turn also don’t justify making an exception to the rule of gender equality. Such reasons have included claiming women aren’t cut out for politics, or they will be influenced by their husbands.

Others may also say the imperial family has a long history — one they would argue has continued for 126 generations, though this is an academically questionable figure and based on myth — and that the long history justifies having only males reign as emperor.

These people would say the “tradition” of having an emperor must be kept alive. Constitutional scholars who are proponents of this idea often believe the tradition of the imperial family persists despite the introduction of the current Constitution, enforced in 1947, and that the charter in fact carries on the norms and traditions of previous eras.

But I disagree with this line of thinking.

The enforcement of the 1947 Constitution is a break with the past — almost like a fresh start. The imperial system is the same by name but otherwise operates as a completely different system and does not carry on the traditions of the past.

The current imperial system has not continued for 126 generations. It has continued for three, meaning the three emperors who have been on the throne since the charter took effect. This is why I believe justifying the current system and not allowing women the throne because of “tradition” is not a viable argument.

Even if one were to say that the emperor is above the Constitution and that the imperial family should be exempt from the principle of gender equality, the Constitution doesn’t outlaw women from ascending the throne.

The Constitution states only that the throne be hereditary — it doesn’t specify whether the successor is male or female. That’s only specified in the Imperial Household Law, which is a lower law than the Constitution — meaning it can be revised.

The question of whether women should be able to assume the throne is, however, a complex one that requires much thought.

For example, allowing a woman to become a reigning empress means women should be able to stay part of the imperial family even if they marry — something the current imperial system doesn’t allow.

The order of imperial succession will have to be decided as well. Should sons always be given priority to the throne? Or should the firstborn be the rightful heir, regardless of gender? These are the sort of questions that would have to be answered.

That would also mean, however, that the imperial family would expand exponentially and possibly become expensive to maintain.

These are the possibilities and issues that also must be discussed when considering whether to allow women on the throne.

Either way, a male-only successor system is bound to run into a dead end. If the country wants to keep the imperial system in place, people have to seriously consider allowing the throne to be passed down the maternal line of the family as well.

That said, allowing women on the throne, and allowing successors from the female line of the family will also be a break from the traditional image the public has of the imperial family.

This could throw into question why an imperial system that runs by rules that don’t agree with the basic tenets of the Constitution is in effect in the first place.

As told to staff writer Sakura Murakami

Koichi Yokota is a professor emeritus at Kyushu University specializing in constitutional studies.

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