With the abdication of Emperor Akihito and the enthronement of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, there will be only three Imperial family members in line to the throne — who under the Imperial House Law must be males born to the paternal line of the family: Prince Akishino, 53, who will become the Crown Prince and first in line; his 12-year-old son, Prince Hisahito; and Prince Hitachi, the 83-year-old brother of the retiring Emperor.
Given that Prince Hisahito is the family’s sole male member of his generation, it seems inevitable that stable Imperial succession will be threatened at some point as long as the male-only succession rule established during the Meiji Era is kept intact. The coming transition from Heisei to the new era of Reiwa should provide a chance to kick off political discussions on what needs to be done to avert a crisis to the future of the Imperial family system.
The thinning ranks of the Imperial family, in particular the declining number of males in line to the throne, has long been deemed a looming problem. When the Heisei Era began in 1989, Prince Akishino was at that point the last male born to the family — in 1965. In 2005, an advisory panel to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi compiled a report recommending changes to the succession rules to ensure stability in the Imperial succession. The measures included allowing an empress to reign and maternal line succession, and that the first-born child, whether male or female, should take precedence in the order of succession. These proposals were apparently developed with Princess Aiko, born in 2001 to the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, in mind.
The Koizumi administration reportedly planned to amend the Imperial House Law in line with the advisory panel’s ideas. But resistance was strong within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — particularly among its conservative lawmakers who believe that succession based on paternal lineage constitutes a crucial part of the tradition of the world’s longest-remaining royal family: All past reigning empresses in Japanese history have come from the family’s paternal line.
The momentum for discussing such changes died when Prince Hisahito was born to the Akishino house in 2006, the first male born to the Imperial family in 41 years. However, the situation surrounding the issue has hardly changed — Prince Hisahito remains the only male member of the family in their 40s or younger. Meanwhile, three other elderly members of the family in line to the throne have since died.
Also under the Imperial House Law, female Imperial family members are stripped of their royal status when they marry someone from outside the family. The departure of young women from the Imperial family upon marriage accelerates the thinning of its ranks. Of the current 18 members of the Imperial family, including the retiring Emperor and Empress, 13 are female and six have yet to marry, including Princess Aiko. An idea was entertained by the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to create a system in which female members would stay in the Imperial family after marriage and create their own Imperial houses. However, that idea also went nowhere when the DPJ fell from power, and opposition remains strong today among conservatives out of concern that creation of female-led Imperial houses could lead to a reigning empress or succession of the maternal lineage.
When the government and the Diet discussed the special one-off legislation paving the way for Emperor Akihito to abdicate, a concept not provided for under the Imperial House Law, the question of succession rules was essentially sidestepped — apparently to avoid reopening discussions on those sensitive issues. A Diet resolution attached to the legislation when it was enacted in 2017 calls on the government to look into measures to ensure stable Imperial succession in the future, including the possibility of creating Imperial houses led by its female members. The resolution also said this should take place quickly after the abdication has taken place and that the government report the findings to the Diet.
Last month, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated that the government would promptly take on that task. Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima said the time has come to open political discussions on the issue. The resolution did not set a deadline for wrapping up the discussions, however, and it’s not clear when and whether a consensus can be reached on the touchy subject. What seems clear is that the issue will not resolve itself with time.
Under the postwar Constitution, the emperor’s position as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” derives from the “will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” However, the rules on Imperial succession set in 1889 have effectively been carried over to date. Whether the rules remain appropriate for today’s Imperial family system and its future should be discussed.