The government is set to start talks on female members of the imperial family being allowed to maintain their royal status after marriage, by heading their own family branches, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
The proposal is seen as serving to defer discussions over whether to allow women or their descendants to ascend to the throne itself to become emperor or empress.
The planned government discussions, which are set to include input from experts, could begin after the Daijosai thanksgiving ritual scheduled to be performed by Emperor Naruhito on Thursday and Friday, the sources said. Under a supplementary parliamentary resolution of the special law enacted in 2017 to allow former Emperor Akihito to abdicate, the government was asked to consider the challenges of ensuring a stable succession and report to the Diet.
The main focus of the discussions had been whether to allow women or heirs in the maternal line of the imperial family to assume the throne, in line with a proposal made in 2005 by an expert panel commissioned by the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
However, conservatives strongly oppose the idea, preferring to keep the current rule that allows only male offspring in the imperial family’s paternal line to assume the throne. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also expressed opposition to the 2005 proposal, and many in the government are cautious about it.
The possibility of a reigning empress is popular among the public. According to a Kyodo News poll late last month, 81.9 percent of respondents said they are in favor of having a reigning empress, while 13.5 percent were against the idea. In addition, 70 percent said they would support an emperor or empress from the female line, meaning that the monarch’s mother would descend from the imperial family rather than their father, while 21.9 percent were opposed.
There are currently only three potential heirs to the throne. Crown Prince Akishino, 53, the younger brother of Emperor Naruhito, is first in line, followed by Prince Hisahito, 13, the crown prince’s only son, and then Prince Hitachi, the 83-year-old uncle of the emperor.
Still, in the view of one senior government official, a decision on the succession issue can wait “30 to 40 years.”
Under the Imperial Household Law, female members of the imperial family need to leave the family if they marry commoners. As the family currently consists mostly of women, including Princess Aiko, the emperor’s 17-year-old daughter, there are concerns over a sharp drop in the number of members in the imperial family in the future.
For that reason, some in the government are calling for female members to be allowed to remain in the family even after marriage.
A government official said permitting female branches should be an option, since the measure is different from the idea of allowing women or their descendants to take the throne. Conservatives, however, also disagree with the female branch proposal.
The government also plans to look into restoring imperial family status to 11 branches that left the family in 1947 after the end of World War II, according to the sources.
Last month, a conservative group in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party proposed that men from previously severed branches of the imperial family rejoin it in order to ensure stable male succession.
To sustain the imperial family, the group came up with ideas such as letting unmarried men in the former branches marry into or be adopted by the family. The group suggested creating a law on this as an emergency measure, instead of revising the Imperial Household Law.
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