Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appears strongly committed to revising the Imperial Household Law to let female members of the Imperial family remain in the royal family even if they marry commoners. The Imperial family is the oldest royal family in the world and Chapter 1 of the Japanese Constitution is about the emperors. For Japan, to ensure stable imperial succession is an important matter.

But much doubt has been expressed about his ability to implement such a revision, which could potentially split public opinion down the middle, because he already faces a large number of urgent and sometimes controversial issues, which include reconstruction of the areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis, raising the consumption tax rate, social security reform and Japan’s possible entry into the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

In October, Shingo Haketa, chief of the Imperial Household Agency, told Noda that if the number of Imperial family members decreases because of women leaving the family after marriage under the law, the activities of the Imperial family as a whole will face difficulty.

If things are left as they are, there is the possibility that in the future, only Prince Hisahito, the son of Prince Akishino, the younger brother of the Crown Prince Naruhito, will form (with his family members) the Imperial family.

Noda has reportedly confided to a professor of a national university, who was asked to become a member of an advisory panel on the Imperial household female member issue, that there are three things he would like to accomplish during his tenure: a consumption tax hike, Japan’s participation in the TPP agreement and revision of the Imperial Household Law.

This law governs the lines of imperial succession, the membership of the Imperial family and a number of other matters pertaining to the administration of the Imperial household.

Two principal provisions of the law are: (1) Only male members of the Imperial family are qualified to accede to the throne, and (2) female members must leave the family after they marry commoners, thus disqualifying them from heading a “branch household” within the Imperial family.

The first in the line of succession to the throne now held by Emperor Akihito, now 78, is his 51-year-old son Crown Prince Naruhito, followed by his younger brother Prince Akishino, 46, Prince Akishino’s 5-year-old son Prince Hisahito, Prince Hitachi, 76, the younger brother of the Emperor, and Prince Mikasa, the youngest brother of the Emperor Showa, in that order. There are two more male members in the Imperial family qualified under the existing law to accede to the throne.

This shortage of male members has given rise to serious concerns that unless the rules are changed in some way, the future of the Imperial family, and indeed the Imperial system itself may be in jeopardy. That prompted former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2005 to create an advisory body to consider revising the Imperial Household Law.

The panel came up with a report recommending amending the law to have the first child of an emperor, regardless of whether the child is a boy or girl, accede to the Imperial throne. As this represented a total reversal of the centuries-old tradition of a son of an emperor becoming the next emperor, it caused a sharp split in public opinion. But the public debate on whether to amend the law began to subside quickly after Sept. 6, 2006, when Princess Kiko, the wife of Prince Akishino, gave birth to Prince Hisahito, the first male member born into the Imperial family since 1965.

A major problem remains, though, as the current law does not permit female members of the Imperial family to form their own “branches” within the family after they get married. Thus, in the near future, the whole family could dwindle to just one branch, headed by Prince Hisahito.

Under these circumstances, the government is considering shelving the issue of female accession to the throne and concentrating on amending the law to create Imperial family branches headed by female members. But even that path faces a number of hurdles.

One question, for example, is whether female-member heads of branches should be limited to descendants of the current Emperor or be expanded to include descendants of Prince Mikasa, the youngest brother of the Emperor Showa. Another question is whether a newly created branch headed by a female member will be limited to one generation or have hereditary status. Yet, another question is whether the male spouse of the female head of a newly created branch and their offspring should be treated as Imperial family members.

How these issues are handled could very well determine how controversial female accession to the throne becomes.

In an attempt to maintain the Imperial male line, former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Bunmei Ibuki, aired the idea that “The most appropriate way would be to legalize creation of a branch of the Imperial family headed by a female member on condition that if she marries a commoner, that branch would last only for one generation, and that if she marries a male descendant of former Imperial family members, that branch would be made permanent.” This idea must clear such issues as the constitutional principle that marriage must be based on consent between a man and a woman.

Meanwhile, Prince Akishino, second in the line of succession, said at a press conference Nov. 30, on his 46th birthday, that his own opinions and those of the Crown Prince should be taken into consideration in discussing the future of the Imperial family. The comment has been taken as an indirect complaint against the government’s move to amend the Imperial Household Law without consulting the Imperial family members.

Indeed, the advisory body created by Koizumi in 2005 never sought views from any member of the Imperial family. The late former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said in an interview with the Sankei Shimbun that although he twice called on Teijiro Furukawa, former deputy chief Cabinet secretary and a member of the panel, to seek opinions from the Imperial family members, his requests were turned down both times.

In November 2009, on the 20th anniversary of his enthronement, the Emperor said, in discussing the future of the Imperial family, that it would be important to listen to the opinions of his two sons, Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino.

Although Prime Minister Noda appears eager to tackle many important issues, including one related to the Imperial family with its many ramifications, is he capable of handling all of them? Or is this eagerness a sign of overconfidence?

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japan’s political, social and economic scenes.

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