The decision last Friday by the Imperial Household Council, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, finally sets the stage for Emperor Akihito to retire on April 30, 2019, in the first Imperial abdication in about 200 years — and the first in the Imperial system under the postwar Constitution. Special legislation was enacted in June, applicable solely to the current aging Emperor in response to his wish indicated in a video message last year to step down — which is not provided for in the Imperial House Law’s succession rules. Discussions on Imperial abdication have shed light on questions surrounding future succession in the Imperial family — an issue that should also be promptly addressed.

The one-off legislation enables 83-year-old Emperor Akihito to abdicate without amending the Imperial House Law, which stipulates that an emperor is to be succeeded by the heir upon his death. The law also says that only male members of the Imperial family on the paternal lineage can be heirs to the throne. When Crown Prince Naruhito, the Emperor’s eldest son, ascends to the throne the day after the abdication, his brother Prince Akishino will be the second in line. Currently, Prince Akishino’s 11-year-old son, Prince Hisahito, is the sole male member of the family younger than his father.

Under the law, female members of the Imperial family lose their royal status when they marry outside the Imperial family. Prince Akishino’s eldest daughter, Princess Mako, is scheduled to marry her former university classmate next November. Of the current 18 Imperial family members supporting the Emperor, 14 are women. When Princess Mako leaves the Imperial family, there will be six women up to their 30s, including Crown Prince Naruhito’s 16-year-old daughter, Princess Aiko. If they also marry and leave the Imperial family in coming years, the Imperial family could be further depleted.

A resolution attached to the abdication legislation adopted by the Diet calls on the government, after the abdication takes place, to promptly look into measures to ensure a “stable Imperial succession” in the future — such as allowing female members to retain their Imperial status after marriage by establishing female-led houses in the family — and report to the Diet. But while the resolution calls the issue an urgent matter that cannot be deferred, it does not set any timeline for the government’s effort to study such steps.

There is strong opposition among conservative lawmakers to the creation of female-led Imperial houses, because they fear that could pave the way for reigning empresses and matrilineal succession — which is anathema to their belief in the Imperial family’s tradition of patrilineal succession. All past reigning empresses in history, including the last one, Empress Gosakuramachi in the late 18th century, had emperors in their paternal ancestry. Abe himself told the Upper House recently that the matter should be “cautiously and carefully examined” in view of the “gravity of the fact that paternal lineage succession has been maintained” throughout the family’s history. Even when discussions are launched, it will not be easy to reach a political consensus on the issue anytime soon.

But it also seems undeniable that the issue of shrinking Imperial family membership is one that cannot be postponed. In 2006, given the small pool of eligible male heirs in the family, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi considered an amendment to the Imperial House Law to allow reigning empresses and maternal lineage succession. However, the birth of Prince Hisahito to the Akishino house — the first boy to be born to the Imperial family in more than 40 years — the same year shelved the issue. Today, Prince Hisahito remains the sole male of his generation in the family.

Crown Prince Naruhito will have turned 59 when he ascends the throne in 2019 — even older than his father was when he acceded the throne in 1989 at the age of 55 — and only about a quarter of a century will pass before he reaches the present age of Emperor Akihito, who indicated his wish to abdicate out of concern that he may become unable to perform his duty as the “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” due to advancing age. This time, the succession rules under the Imperial House Law were kept intact as the abdication was set as a special one-off measure for the current Emperor. But the issue may return in the not too distant future. Since the emperor’s status derives from “the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power,” public discussions should continue on the rules governing Imperial succession.

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