The government has finally started discussing ways to ensure stable imperial succession, but it still appears cautious about reaching a conclusion on the matter anytime soon.
On Tuesday, a government-appointed panel of experts on the topic held its first meeting, about four years after the Diet called on the government to discuss imperial succession-related issues.
But the government is expected to remain reluctant to accelerate discussions on the matter because it is controversial, and might split public opinion and affect the election for the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Diet, which must be held by October.
Concerns over stable imperial succession stem from a decreasing number of imperial family members, in particular male members, and the current rule of male-only imperial succession under the Imperial House Law.
"I ask you all, with deep insight, to discuss the matter," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told participants at the meeting of the panel.
In June 2017, a special law was enacted to allow former Emperor Akihito to abdicate. The committees of both Diet chambers that had debates on the special legislation adopted a nonbinding supplementary resolution asking the government to consider issues such as whether to allow female imperial family members to remain in the family after marriage, by establishing family branches, and ways to ensure stable imperial succession.
However, there had been no major progress in discussions on such issues under the administration of Suga's immediate predecessor, Shinzo Abe, whose supporters are mostly conservative and tend to prefer maintaining the current rule of allowing only men from the paternal line of the imperial family to succeed to the throne.
The Suga administration planned to hold a meeting on the matter in November last year, after a series of ceremonies related to the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito was completed, but this was postponed due to the resurgence of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For the expert panel, the government named six people who are not specialized in the imperial household system, apparently in order to ward off accusations that the panel's discussions were just a formality and that the body was designed to come up with a conclusion favorable to the government.
"We avoided appointing people with strong opinions on imperial succession," a senior government official said, stressing the government's neutrality.
Suga is expected to be slow to set out a clear direction on ways to ensure stable imperial succession, at least until the upcoming general election. The government has stopped short of setting a deadline for the panel to report the outcome of its discussions.
Some in the government believe that momentum for an early conclusion has yet to be created as Prince Hisahito, the son of Crown Prince Akishino, is only 14 years old.
The Crown Prince, the 55-year-old brother of Emperor Naruhito, 61, and Prince Hisahito are first and second in line to the throne, respectively, followed by Prince Hitachi, the 85-year-old uncle of the emperor. The three are currently the emperor's only heirs under the male-only succession rule.
The expert panel is not required to present a conclusion on the topic because that would heavily affect the government's decision-making process. It is only tasked with exploring and setting out issues around succession of the imperial throne.
The government is believed to be concerned about a potential backlash from conservative lawmakers if the panel decides to support the controversial idea of allowing women or people from the imperial family's maternal bloodline to ascend the throne.
"The prime minister has no intention of moving (discussions forward)," a person related to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said.
"We won't draw a conclusion," a government official said, suggesting that discussions on the topic are likely to remain at a standstill.
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