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Future of Japan's imperial dynasty rests on shoulders of 13-year-old Prince Hisahito

by Linda Sieg

Reuters

When Prince Hisahito, Japan’s youngest prince, visited Bhutan in August on his first overseas trip, just months after his uncle, Emperor Naruhito, ascended to the throne, the visit was regarded as the debut of a future monarch on the world stage.

Greeting his hosts in traditional hakama kimono and trying his hand at archery, the trip offered rare public exposure for the boy on whose shoulders the future of the monarchy rests.

Emperor Naruhito, 59, who became monarch on May 1 following the abdication of his father, now Emperor Emeritus Akihito, proclaimed his enthronement Tuesday before dignitaries from Japan and overseas.

Japan only allows males to ascend to the ancient chrysanthemum throne, and changes to the succession law are anathema to conservatives backing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Prince Hisahito, 13, the lone imperial male in his generation, is second in line to the throne after his father Crown Prince Akishino, 53, the emperor’s younger brother.

“Under the current rules of succession, Prince Hisahito … will eventually bear the entire burden of perpetuating the imperial family,” the Asahi newspaper wrote in an editorial this year.

“The pressure this prince would eventually come under is too formidable to contemplate.”

Prince Hisahito’s birth in 2006 was seen as a miracle by conservatives eager to preserve male-only succession.

No imperial males had been born since 1965, and after eight years of marriage, the emperor’s wife, now Empress Masako, gave birth to a girl, Princess Aiko, spurring moves to revise the succession law and let women inherit and pass on the throne.

But Prince Hisahito’s birth put those moves on hold. “Conservatives felt that the will of heaven had been revealed,” said Hidehiko Kasahara, a professor of political science at Keio University.

Now, some experts and media are wondering whether Prince Hisahito is being properly groomed for the future.

“It is important to have him realize that he is in a position to inherit the throne when interacting with people, and to keep them in mind, from an early age,” Kasahara said.

Japan’s post-World War II Constitution gives the emperor no political authority, instead designating him the “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people.”

Prince Hisahito is attending a junior high school affiliated to Ochanomizu University, making him the first imperial family member since the war to study outside the private Gakushuin Junior High School.

Emperor Emeritus Akihito was mentored by Shinzo Koizumi, a former president of Keio University, among others, and then became the role model for his son, Emperor Naruhito, scholars say.

Unlike his grandfather, who carved out an active role as a symbol of peace, democracy and reconciliation with victims of Japan’s wartime aggression, Prince Hisahito has no special mentor to help him prepare for his future imperial role.

“It is necessary to have someone who can determine with him what is appropriate for a 21st century monarch,” said Naotaka Kimizuka, an expert in European monarchies at Kanto Gakuin University.

“But it is not clear to what extent Crown Prince Akishino or the Imperial Household Agency is seriously considering that.”

Whether Prince Hisahito bears the full responsibility for continuing the imperial line is as yet unclear.

When the Diet passed a special law allowing Emperor Emeritus Akihito to abdicate in 2017, it adopted a nonbinding resolution asking the government to consider how to ensure a stable succession.

One option is to allow women, including Princess Aiko and Prince Hisahito’s two elder sisters, to retain their imperial family status after marriage and inherit or pass the throne to their children, which surveys show most ordinary Japanese favor.

Conservatives want instead to revive junior royal branches that were stripped of imperial status after the war.

Abe, though, is unlikely to want any thorny discussions. “They want to put off debate as much as possible,” Kasahara said.

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