The government has begun an informal study on ways to ensure stable imperial succession in light of the dearth of male heirs in the imperial family by conducting hearings with experts behind the scenes, government sources say.

Full-scale debate, including the formation of an expert panel, is expected to begin after the Rikkoshi no Rei ceremony on April 19, when Crown Prince Akishino, the younger brother of Emperor Naruhito, will proclaim he is first in line to the throne.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita is leading the informal study, and sources say officials have already been dispatched to seek opinions from several experts. They are believed to be gathering views mainly on whether to allow women or heirs in the maternal line of the imperial family to assume the throne, in line with a proposal made by an expert panel commissioned by the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The hearings apparently also cover the idea of restoring imperial status to those who left the family soon after the war and whether the female members should be allowed to retain their status after marriage by heading family branches.

The next envisaged panel is expected to discuss imperial succession on the basis of the results of these hearings.

The government is working informally on the issue because it postponed the full-fledged discussions that were to be held after the Daijosai ceremony in November out of respect for the crown prince, the sources said.

There were strong views that “active debates should be avoided before Crown Prince Akishino’s place in the line of succession is finalized,” a government source said.

On Dec. 27, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said “the discussions should be held in a calm atmosphere.”

Members of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party are divided on the issue. The conservative members want to maintain the current rule, in which only male offspring from the family’s paternal line can assume the throne. They are also encouraging the government to draft legislation to let former members of the family to be reinstated.

By contrast, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other members have not ruled out the option of letting anyone in the family’s maternal line take the throne, in light of sexual equality.

One possible solution is to postpone debate on whether to let women or heirs in the maternal line assume the throne and settle on a proposal to permit female heads of imperial family branches ascend, though the idea will not necessarily ensure stable imperial succession, the sources said.

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