SYDNEY - Emperor Akihito indicated last month that he may soon wish to step down, and allow his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to assume the throne. His intention unveiled in a televised video message raises legal complexities, but also makes obvious sense: The Emperor plays an important symbolic and constitutional role in the life of the Japanese nation. But the Emperor also plays an active ceremonial role, which at 82, he is finding increasingly difficult to fulfill.
The son is keen to assume these duties, and is widely admired among Japanese citizens for his public role. The case therefore seems clear-cut for the Diet making the necessary changes to the Imperial House Law to allow a transition in Imperial authority. The more thorny question is whether anything should be done, at the same time, about the transition from the son to the next generation of the Imperial family. Japanese law currently only allows for a male emperor, and this means that when the current Crown Prince vacates the throne, either his brother Prince Akishino or nephew Prince Hisahito (now age 10) will become emperor. In doing so, they will also bypass three potential female heirs to the throne: the Crown Prince’s daughter, Princess Aiko (15), and nieces Princesses Mako and Kako (25 and 22).
From a gender equality perspective, this raises obvious difficulties: Article 24 of the Constitution provides that “with regard to … inheritance … laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes.” While no ordinary inheritance, accession to the throne is also both an opportunity and responsibility of huge symbolic significance in Japan.
Thus, saying that women cannot take up this opportunity, or fulfill this responsibility, has significant adverse consequences for gender equality. Instead of affirming the changing role of women in Japanese society, it enshrines an outmoded attitude about women and family roles — and advertises it through the most well-known family in the country.
If this was not enough to make the case for change, there is an important pragmatic argument for doing so: For the Crown Prince to succeed as emperor, he needs the support of a happy and healthy wife, not a Crown Princess traumatized by unnecessary stress and criticism. Crown Princess Masako has also already suffered enormous stress as a result of something that is not only entirely beyond her control, but ought not to be a problem in the first place — i.e., the inability to bear a son. Changing the law, to allow Princess Aiko (and other future female heirs) to one day become a reigning empress, would thus go a long way to allowing the Crown Prince to have the family support he needs to succeed in the job.
This of, course, would mean a quite major change to the current Imperial House Law, and rules of succession in Japan. But is also a change that is more than overdue.
If the Imperial household, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, or the Japanese people find this one step too far — there is also a potential compromise, which all sides should be able to embrace. Princess Aiko could be allowed to become empress, but on the understanding that the line of succession would then revert to the oldest child (male or female) of Prince Hisahito willing to assume the position.
This “reversionary” approach would give the family of the Crown Prince’s brother, Prince Akishino, an important ongoing role in the Imperial family, and thus a direct stake in the success of this succession plan.
It would also help allay fears among the minority of Japanese citizens who oppose such a change: It would give doubters an opportunity to experience a female empress, knowing that there would later be a reversion to the current Imperial bloodline. Comparative experience further shows that gradual, “experimentalist” change of this kind is very often successful in changing democratic attitudes.
The time has clearly come for the Crown Prince to assume the throne. But when he does so, he should be entitled to expect that his daughter will succeed him in the role. The best way to achieve this will be simply via a change to the current rules, to allow the oldest child of an emperor to accede to the throne, regardless of gender. But an acceptable compromise would be a reversionary model that allows the oldest child of an emperor to take the throne, but gives the oldest male child in line to the throne the right to pass on rights of succession to his children.
This model does at least partial justice to current commitments to gender equality in Japan, and also to both princesses from whom the Crown Prince needs support, if he is to succeed in his role. It is thus a compromise that almost all Japanese leaders and citizens should be able to live with.
Rosalind Dixon is a professor of law at University of South Wales faculty of law, and director of the G+T Center of Public Law Comparative Constitutional Law Project.