It was on the evening of May 16 when public broadcaster NHK broke the news that Princess Mako, 25, the eldest daughter of Prince Akishino, would soon become engaged to a commoner. This came close on the heels of an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties on a one-off piece of legislation to permit the abdication of the aging Emperor Akihito, and the focus of political discussion was about to shift to the question whether female members of the Imperial family should be allowed to create their own branch in the family when they marry, instead of leaving the family under the current rules. The abdication bill was formally endorsed by the Cabinet three days later.
The timing was reminiscent of what happened last July, when, three days after the Upper House election, NHK broke an exclusive report that the Emperor would shortly deliver a message expressing his wish to retire.
These two events appear to be more than coincidental, since it is inconceivable that the subject matter of both news reports would be made public without advance approval by the Emperor and Empress. That quickly led to political speculation over possible messages in the latest report.
The opposition Democratic Party, which advocates the creation of female Imperial family branches, said it should be taken as a tacit request from the Imperial family to expedite the process of creating female branches — and called for prompt Diet discussions so that a conclusion could be reached this fall and Princess Mako would be able to form her own branch when she married. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, on the other hand, countered that linking the report and the Diet discussions amounts to taking advantage of an auspicious event in the Imperial family for political purposes — and that any such change in the rules cannot be made in time for Princess Mako’s marriage.
Conservative ranks, particularly the vocal ones like the right-wing Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), oppose the creation of female branches out of fear that it could clear the way for Imperial succession on maternal lineage — a break from the current male-only, paternal lineage succession. Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also cautious about the idea, a majority of LDP lawmakers would rather not discuss the subject.
The issue was one of the topics for discussions between the ruling and opposition parties when they huddled over the abdication bill. In March, both sides agreed that the government should study the female branch issue promptly after the abdication legislation is implemented — although they agreed to disagree on setting a deadline for making a decision on the matter. But the report compiled in late April by the government’s panel of knowledgeable persons on the matter failed to go into specifics — just saying it is necessary to promptly consider measures to respond to the declining number of Imperial family members.
It should be remembered in this context that the Emperor, in his televised message last August, expressed his “earnest wish” that “the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State can continue steadily without a break.” He was not merely asking to be relieved of his own duties, but was apparently calling for a system that would ensure a stable Imperial succession, likely including measures to increase the pool of people in line to the throne, and, more specifically, enabling reigning empresses and maternal lineage succession.
However, the government’s panel was tasked only to discuss — as its name suggests — how to reduce Emperor Akihito’s burden of official duties, and sidestepped the more fundamental question of how to maintain the system under the postwar Constitution of emperors serving as the symbol of the state.
The Abe administration, while on the surface showing its willingness to study the creation of female Imperial branches, is merely seeking to put off a decision to buy time, hoping that the succession problem will resolve itself when Prince Hisahito, the 10-year-old son of Prince Akishino and the family’s only male member of his generation, grows up, gets married and has a son. The government may think that if something goes wrong in this scenario, new measures should be considered in the future to cope with the situation.
Professor Hidetsugu Yagi of Reitaku University, known to be one of Abe’s “brains,” says that the Imperial family would lose its legitimacy if the paternal lineage succession of emperors is broken and in that case, “Japan will no longer be Japan.” His argument may represent the voice of so-called conservatives as represented by the Japan Conference, to whom Abe himself acknowledges sympathy. But as far as that reasoning goes, it follows that if Prince Hisahito does not marry or have a boy, Japan will have to lose the Imperial family because the nation itself cannot cease to exist.
Conservatives repeatedly suggest an alternative in which male members of families that lost Imperial status right after World War II would be brought back into the Imperial family as potential heirs. The prime minister is said to have privately noted that he would be open to creating a female branch of the Imperial family if one of its female members is to marry an offspring of such former Imperial family members on the paternal lineage. A former grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency laments, however, that it is next to impossible to find a person with such qualifications.
Back in November 2005, an advisory body to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued a report stating that either a woman or a man of maternal lineage should be in line to the throne — and that the eldest of the siblings born to an emperor should take precedence. Before the report was released, the government secretly surveyed the situations of former Imperial family members and their possible intentions to return to the family’s fold. However, the probe found that there were no such males who could possibly return to the family. It has been confirmed that the male-only paternal lineage succession will someday be doomed — and that’s why the suggestion was made for paving the way for reigning empresses and maternal lineage succession, but Abe, who took over from Koizumi, turned down the recommendation, and 12 years have passed without any other solution considered, says the former grand steward.
When an insider of the Imperial Household Agency accused the government of taking no action, a senior government official denied that Abe was obstructing changes to succession rules — but said that the prime minister was simply not interested in matters of the Imperial family. He suggested that Abe does not have a strong opinion himself about Imperial family issues but is merely opposing the creation of female branches in the family to secure support from conservative forces — and the bureaucrats and the LDP follow his line.
The Democratic Party may not be much different. Former Prime Minister and DP Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda, a leading advocate of creating female Imperial family branches, remains uncommitted on allowing reigning empresses and maternal lineage succession. He does not appear ready to take the lead for reforming the male-only paternal lineage succession rules. It is not just Abe or conservatives like those in the Japan Conference, but also politicians of all parties, government officials, intellectuals, the public and the entire nation for that matter that should be blamed for their indifference and irresponsibility that endanger the future of the Imperial family.
An Imperial Household Agency source says the imminent engagement of Princess Mako is likely not meant to prod political discussion on the creation of the female Imperial family branches, but reflects her wish to lead a free life as a young lady, adding that her father must feel the same way. Political inaction and the indifference of society is pushing the Imperial family ever closer to extinction.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the June issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. English articles of the magazine can be read at www.sentaku-en.com .