A government panel on imperial succession has issued a final proposal to revise the Imperial Household Law. It contains two main points. One is that females and their descendants should be allowed to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. The second is that the emperor’s firstborn child, regardless of gender, should be first in line to the throne. The government is expected to submit a revision bill to the Diet in March 2006.
The immediate effect of the revision would be that three-year-old Princess Aiko, the Crown Prince and Princess’ only child, will become the nation’s first female emperor since female Emperor Go-Sakuramachi, who reigned from 1762 to 1770. She will succeed her father, now first in line to the throne. The panel’s proposal could also bring a historic change to the practice of successions based on a male line in the emperor system.
The 10-member panel, headed by former Tokyo University President Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, started discussions in January, prompted by the fact that since the birth of Prince Akishino, the younger brother of the Crown Prince, in 1965, no male has been born into the Imperial family. Under the current Imperial Household Law, only males who have emperors on their father’s side can be heirs to the Imperial throne. The Crown Princess, a 41-year-old Harvard-educated former diplomat, is apparently suffering from stress due to the pressure placed on her to give birth to a son. If this rule remains, there is a danger that there will be no heirs to the Imperial throne in the future. In contrast to the Meiji Constitution, which designated the emperor as the nation’s sovereign, the current Constitution upholds the principle that sovereign power resides with the people. But Article 1 says, “The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” If the panel’s proposal is implemented, the number of heirs to the throne will increase from the current six to 14, thus helping ensure continuity of the hereditary institution.
The present Emperor is supposedly the 125th emperor, if legendary emperors such as the Emperor Jinmu, the first emperor, are included. All those who succeeded to the Imperial throne, with eight female emperors counted among them, had emperors on their fathers’ side, including cases in which their emperor ancestors were more than one generation apart. Traditionalists place the biggest importance to this unbroken male line of emperors, or “Bansei Ikkei,” literally one line through all ages.
But to maintain the male line only with children born to emperors and their wives was often difficult. Nearly 60 emperors were children born to emperors and their concubines, including the Emperor Meiji and the Emperor Taisho. The current Imperial Household Law, enacted in 1947, excludes the concubine system.
The panel’s proposal could mean a complete break with this Bansei Ikkei tradition. The break can occur after Princess Aiko becomes a female emperor. If she marries a commoner and bears children, the firstborn child, whether a girl or a boy, will succeed her as an emperor. This emperor will have no emperors on his or her father’s side and have emperors only on his or her mother’s side, thus terminating the Bansei Ikkei tradition.
Traditionalists may protest that such an emperor is a deviation from the tradition. But the panel’s final report says that since social factors such as the declining birth rate, a trend toward later marriages and the people’s ethical opposition to the concubine system have made it almost impossible to maintain Bansei Ikkei male successions, it is indispensable to make females and those who do not have emperors on their father’s side eligible as heirs to the throne. It also says that institutional and psychological changes concerning the family and the division of roles between males and females should also be taken into account.
As to the proposal to give priority to the firstborn child rather than to the first male among siblings born to an Imperial couple, it notes that the firstborn-priority system enables the people to know who will be the next emperor as soon as the first child is born to an Imperial couple and makes it possible to set an education policy for a next emperor at an early stage, while the male-priority system may make the succession order unstable.
Other problems may include the difficulty to find an ideal commoner to become the husband of a woman who is an emperor and possible opposition to allowing a female emperor to perform Shintoist rituals in the Imperial Court. During the Diet deliberations, tradition-oriented lawmakers may oppose or propose revisions to the government bill. But due consideration should be paid to the panel’s opinion: “A tradition is not necessarily an unchangeable thing. A choice made in a certain period of time can survive as a tradition or an accumulation of such choices can form a new tradition.”
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