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The new year has been ushered in by the auspicious news of a long-awaited announcement: Princess Nori, the only daughter of the Emperor, is engaged to Mr. Yoshiki Kuroda, a Tokyo Metropolitan Government employee. We congratulate them heartily and hope that they will serve as a bridge between the Imperial family and the people.

It will be the first time in 45 years that a female member of the Emperor’s immediate family has married a commoner. In 1960, Takako Shimazu, fifth daughter of the late Emperor Showa, tied the knot with a bank employee. The event created quite a stir.

Since then the relationship between the Imperial family and the people has become much closer. It is no longer considered unusual for the Emperor’s daughter to marry an ordinary person. We expect that Princess Nori and Mr. Kuroda will build a happy and prosperous family while respecting the traditions of the Imperial household.

Under the Imperial Household Law, a female member of the Imperial family loses her royal title when she marries someone outside the household. However, Princess Nori’s scheduled marriage to Mr. Kuroda has given rise to the view that the family formed by a female member should also be considered a royal line. This is a sensible argument that should prompt a wholesale review of the succession system.

The Imperial Household Law states that only “direct male descendants” are entitled to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. The Emperor has three children — Crown Prince Naruhito, Prince Akishino and Princess Nori (also known as Sayako). All of his grandchildren are female. Therefore, under current law, if no male grandchild is born in the future, a serious succession problem will arise.

That’s why the government has set up a panel of experts to review the law. A key question, of course, is whether it should be amended to open the way for female succession. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Japanese see nothing particularly wrong with a woman ascending the throne. In ancient times Japan had as many as eight empresses.

Those who hold the view that a princess should be allowed to found a family that is part of the Imperial household apparently hope that the existence of more royal family units will increase the number of potential candidates for accession to the throne.

The idea of female succession is easy to embrace, at least in theory, in today’s Japan where men and women enjoy equal opportunity under the law. Still, it is a sensitive issue that commands a great deal of circumspection, for the debut of an empress and the creation of matrilineal royal families would mean a fundamental change in the male-only emperor system. Opponents of a shift to the female line believe it would represent a “change of dynasty” for the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The Imperial household stands at a crossroads. It is time to re-examine the present system from the ground up and present a new vision for the future. With the political debate on constitutional reform likely to gain momentum this year, the emperor system — the Constitution defines the Emperor as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” — will be a major subject.

During the past year, the Imperial family has been the focus of intense controversy. The most contentious remark was the Crown Prince’s reference to the pressures felt by the Crown Princess to produce a male heir (she gave birth to a girl three years ago). He said Princess Masako’s “character had been denied.” During a press interview, the Crown Prince said the couple was looking to perform “new public duties that reflect the times.”

Their “public duties” at present include official visits to foreign countries, attendance at commemorative and other events such as tree-planting ceremonies, plus visits to victims of natural disasters — mostly duties that the Emperor and Empress used to perform during their days as the Crown Prince and Princess. By “new duties,” the Crown Prince probably means a more active international role, including more frequent exchanges with foreign countries.

As for the duties of the Imperial family involving “matters of state,” the Constitution only stipulates acts of the Emperor. Expanding the public duties of the Imperial family — a move opposed by some — is an important issue that should be duly discussed in the Diet and elsewhere.

The announcement of Princess Nori’s engagement had been postponed due to the Dec. 18 death of her great aunt, Princess Takamatsu, the widow of Emperor Showa’s younger brother. With her death, another line of the royal family has disappeared, because the Takamatsus had no children. The shrinking Imperial household is of grave concern to the people.

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