National | The Argument

Female ascension? By tradition, imperial succession follows the male bloodline

by Hidetsugu Yagi

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:


The Chrysanthemum Throne should be passed down only to male members of the imperial family in keeping with a tradition that lends legitimacy to the family.

Although the early history of the imperial family may be hazy, as a rule of thumb the throne has been passed down the paternal line for centuries. The very fact there wasn’t a single exception to this rule is what makes it the fundamental principle for imperial succession.

There have been cases in the past — 10 reigns, to be precise — where women succeeded the Chrysanthemum Throne and ruled as empresses.

However, they were interim rulers who filled the role temporarily until a male member could become emperor. They never broke from the tradition of passing the throne down the paternal line by passing the throne down to their own children.

This is a differentiation that the Japanese public seems to struggle to grasp. Having a woman on the throne is entirely different from having the throne passed down the maternal line of the family. These are two very different issues.

I am not against having a woman on the throne — as has happened in the past. However, the throne must be passed down the male line of the family, meaning the father of the emperor sitting on the throne must always have been an emperor himself.

The reason why the paternal line is so important is because it is what makes the emperor the rightful heir to the throne.

If, for example, a princess of the imperial family and a commoner got married and had a child, would the public be able to say that their child is a rightful heir? I don’t think so.

There are two main justifications for keeping the paternal line.

One is that it has been the tradition for centuries, and that very tradition is what lends legitimacy to the throne.

In the past, relatives as far as eight times removed from the then-emperor would succeed the throne as they drew the male bloodline of the family. That is the extent to which the people of the past respected and protected the tradition of keeping the male bloodline.

The other justification is that the idea of keeping the male bloodline is set forth in the Constitution.

The Constitution states that the imperial family be “hereditary.” Some argue that the term in itself doesn’t indicate whether a son or daughter should be able to succeed the throne, meaning a woman should be able to lawfully inherit the position as emperor.

However, there are historical documents dating back to 1946 claiming the wording that the throne be “hereditary” was not meant to include female successors, and carries on the principle of bansei ikkei (unbroken imperial line of male heirs).

The Constitution may have been enforced in 1947, but it carries on the norms that were present in Japan at the time, as well as those preceding the Meiji Constitution, including the bansei ikkei principle.

It draws on and by implication includes Japanese values of the past. This means that we can look to historical documents such as the Meiji Constitution, as well as the laws of the time, when interpreting the meaning of the current Constitution.

If the longevity of the imperial family is ever questioned due to the lack of male heirs, I think that reinstating branches of the family that draw on its paternal bloodline would be a good way to ensure that the tradition of having male members of the family succeed the throne stays alive.

Critics claim the public wouldn’t be comfortable with suddenly having a commoner who draws on the imperial house’s male bloodline reinstated as a separate princely house, but I think if people understand why it is important to retain the male bloodline, they will understand it is a step needed to ensure the imperial institution doesn’t end.

As told to staff writer Sakura Murakami

Hidetsugu Yagi is a professor at Reitaku University specializing in constitutional studies.

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