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A money row linked to the boyfriend of Princess Mako has apparently been influencing Japan’s debate over whether to change its male-only imperial succession rules amid a shrinking number of heirs.

A government advisory panel heard from a total of 21 experts from various fields in its meetings from April 8 through June 7 to discuss options including allowing women to reign and for emperors to descend from the maternal line.

But as panel members did so, the controversy over the planned marriage between Princess Mako, 29, a niece of Emperor Naruhito, and Kei Komuro, also 29 and a recent law school graduate, continued to simmer, with opponents of change appearing to seize on public unease over it to help make their case.

The marriage has been postponed for over two years following media reports of a financial dispute between Komuro’s mother and a former fiance, who claims she owes him over ¥4 million ($36,000).

Under pressure to resolve the dispute and win over a skeptical public, Komuro, who graduated from Fordham University in New York with a law degree in late May, released a 24-page statement in April saying that “talks” with the former fiance would be “the best choice” to settle the matter.

But he then triggered a fresh backlash after subsequently saying he intends to make a payment to the man in a bid to settle the dispute. No progress in efforts to settle the case has been reported since then.

The Komuros say they regard the money, which includes sums paid for Komuro’s educational expenses, as a gift. Although Komuro remains under pressure to meet the press for an explanation, he has not yet returned to Japan.

Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor at Reitaku University who opposes changing the succession rules, raised the prospect of a son or daughter of Komuro and Princess Mako becoming eligible to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne under the proposed changes.

“Female succession means, for example, a child born between Princess Mako and her partner could become the emperor or empress. It’s easier to understand when you imagine a specific case,” he told one hearing.

Currently, the three heirs in line to succeed 61-year-old Emperor Naruhito are his brother Crown Prince Akishino, 55, his nephew Prince Hisahito, 14, who is the crown prince’s son, and the emperor’s uncle Prince Hitachi, 85. The crown prince is also Princess Mako’s father.

The imperial family has been shrinking under the 1947 Imperial House Law, which limits inheritance of the throne to a male heir who has an emperor on his father’s side. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako’s only child is their daughter Princess Aiko, who will begin public service in the royal family when she turns 20 in December.

Currently Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor's brother, is first in line to the throne. | KYODO
Currently Crown Prince Akishino, the emperor’s brother, is first in line to the throne. | KYODO

“Within the ruling party, there is a longing for (Princess Aiko) to ascend the throne,” a senior government official said, referring to the Liberal Democratic Party headed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Several experts also hinted at support for Princess Aiko’s ascension during the meetings, with one going as far as saying, “There are many people who say the world would become a brighter place if (she) became (reigning) empress.”

Over 60% of the 21 experts voiced support for allowing female monarchs, but some members with conservative views strongly opposed the idea.

Despite the growing calls for Princess Aiko to reign, female royal members have to leave the imperial family once they marry a commoner under the current system. Princess Mako would also lose her imperial status upon marriage to Komuro, who is a commoner.

In Japan, there have been eight female monarchs between the sixth and 18th centuries. But none of them were from a female line of descent.

As a measure against the shrinkage of the imperial family, the panel has been looking into an option of enabling female royal members to keep their status by establishing their own imperial branches after marriage to commoners.

Journalist Yoshiko Sakurai, one of the 21 experts, also made a reference, although veiled, to Princess Mako and Komuro in remarks to reporters after a hearing.

“If a female member remains in the imperial family after marrying a commoner, then the man would become an imperial family member,” she said, before adding pointedly, “There are people to whom this case may apply now.”

To help ensure stable succession, LDP conservatives have called for enabling unmarried male patrilineal descendants of former imperial branches to join the imperial family through adoption or marriage, if they want to. The current Imperial House Law bans adoption into the royal family.

Members of the 11 former branches who share with the imperial family a common ancestor some 600 years ago abandoned their status in 1947, two years after the end of World War II.

Sakurai argued that if one agreed with the idea of a commoner joining the imperial family through marriage, one would have no reason to object to the conservatives’ counterproposal.

“If it is acceptable for a person who has never been a member of the imperial family to become one because he has married a female member, why is it strange for a person who was a member of the imperial family only a few decades ago to return?”

Top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said he’d like the panel to “take discussions deeper beyond personal cases.”

After finishing the experts’ hearing, the panel backed retaining the current rules of succession, shelving the idea of female monarchs and female-line emperors.

The panel’s policy contrasts with overwhelming public support for a reigning empress and an emperor descending from a female member of the imperial family.

A Kyodo News survey conducted in March and April showed 87% of respondents backed a reigning empress and 80% were in favor of a female-line emperor.

The panel plans to continue discussing whether to allow female members to remain in the imperial family after marriage as well as to enable unmarried male members of the former branches to join the imperial family.

The panel is set to compile a report to submit to Suga, who is then expected to report it at the Diet by fall this year.

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