The announced engagement of Princess Ayako, a daughter of a late cousin of Emperor Akihito, to Kei Moriya, a Nippon Yusen K.K. employee, signals the exit of yet another member from the shrinking ranks of the Imperial family that supports the Emperor. The Imperial House Law , which limits Imperial succession to males on the paternal lineage, dictates that a female member will be stripped of her imperial status when she marries someone from outside of the family. When Princess Mako, the eldest daughter of Prince Akishino whose marriage to her former university classmate has been postponed to 2020, similarly leaves the family, the number of Imperial family members will decline from the current 19 to 17.

Aside from Princess Ayako and Princess Mako, there are five other unmarried female members of the Imperial family. Three of them are in their 30s and the sole teenage member is Princess Aiko, the 16-year-old daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito. The marriages of these female members will further reduce the number of Imperial family members. The declining ranks of the Imperial family — an issue that was once again exposed in the course of discussion over the Emperor’s abdication — will only get more serious with the passage of time. But discussion on what to do about the issue remains slow.

The special law enacted last year to set the stage for Emperor Akihito to retire in April 2019 had a resolution attached to it that called on the government, upon the Emperor’s abdication, to promptly look into possible measures to deal with the shrinking membership of the Imperial family and report to the Diet, although it set no timeline for reaching any decision on the matter. The option of creating Imperial houses headed by female members, which would enable the female members to remain in the family after marriage, has been weighed by the government but conservatives — who fear such a system could pave the way for reigning empresses or Imperial succession on the maternal lineage — strongly oppose the idea. The news of Princess Ayako’s engagement, however, once again confirms that the problem won’t resolve itself. Action is necessary.

As long as the male-only, paternal lineage succession rules remain in place, the future stability of the Imperial succession may be hanging by a thread. When the 84-year-old Emperor Akihito retires in the first Imperial abdication in more than 200 years, he will be succeeded by his 58-year-old son, Crown Prince Naruhito. His 52-year-old brother, Prince Akishino, will be next in line. But the sole male member of the family younger than Prince Akishino will be his 11-year-old son, Prince Hisahito. When Prince Hisahito was born in 2006, he was the first boy born to the Imperial family in 40 years — since his father was born in 1965. Today, he remains the sole male member of his generation in the family.

In 2005, a government panel of experts under the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi compiled a report proposing that reigning empresses and Imperial succession on the maternal lineage be allowed and that female-led Imperial houses be created. But discussion on the proposal was sidelined with the birth of Prince Hisahito the following year. In 2012, the Democratic Party of Japan-led government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda again set out to weigh the creation of Imperial houses led by the family’s female members, but this effort ceased when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party returned to power.

When Emperor Akihito made a surprise announcement in 2016 of his wish to abdicate — a process that was not provided for in the Imperial House Law — the government took pains so that discussions on a one-off legislation to pave way for the abdication would not spill over into the question of whether the Imperial succession rules should be reviewed. Abe himself appears to avoid going too deep in discussing the issue, although he emphasizes the “gravity of the fact that succession on the paternal lineage has been maintained without exception” throughout the Imperial family’s history.

During a Diet debate, Abe once floated the idea of bringing back into the Imperial family male members of former Imperial houses that were removed in the early postwar period, as possible candidates as heirs to the throne. Whether they would be ready to rejoin the Imperial family after spending life as commoners for seven decades — and whether their return to the Imperial status would be accepted by the public — is unknown.

The shrinking membership of the Imperial family concerns the future of Imperial succession. Under the Constitution, the emperor’s position as the symbol of the state and the unity of the people derives from “the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” How to address the issue should become the subject of sufficient public discussion as soon as possible.

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