Commentary / Japan

Let will of the people decide succession issue

by Haruaki Deguchi

With the Daijosai (grand thanksgiving) ceremony concluded without a hitch, a series of key rituals linked to Emperor Naruhito’s accession to the throne is now finally over. In Japan, the emperor performs a rite known as Niinamesai at the Imperial Palace every fall to celebrate the year’s rich harvest. The first Niinamesai performed by the new emperor is customarily carried out as a larger-scale Daijosai ceremony.

Just as his father, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, who abdicated at the end of April, and his wife Empress Emerita Michiko did, the new Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako have the respect of people at large, and the new emperor’s reign is believed to have made a good start. That does not mean the imperial family does not face any problems in the future.

The biggest challenge confronting the family is that there are only two potential heirs to the throne who are younger than the emperor: Crown Prince Akishino, the younger brother of the emperor, and Prince Hisahito, the son of the crown prince. This problem traces its origin to a law enacted after the Meiji Restoration roughly 150 years ago, which stipulated that the imperial throne will be succeeded only by males in the family from its paternal lineage. Even under the current Constitution, which was instituted after World War II, the Imperial House Law limited the heirs to men in the family’s paternal lines.

Of course, the Japanese government did not sit idly on the matter. In 2005, a panel of experts set up by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi compiled a report that condoned reigning empresses and succession on the maternal lineage. However, an amendment to the Imperial House Law to make that possible was shelved the following year when Prince Hisahito was born to the Akishino house.

In 2012, the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda compiled a proposal for creating female-led houses within the imperial family — so that female members of the family would retain their imperial status, thus preventing a precipitous decline in the family’s ranks. This proposal never made it to the Diet, either.

The biggest obstacles to making these changes is the deep-seated belief among certain conservative lawmakers that male-only imperial succession on the family’s paternal lineage is a precious national tradition.

What to make of this issue? The number one reason that discussions on the matter do not move forward is that questions related to the Constitution and historical matters have not been separated. The Constitution says in Article 9 that the emperor “shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” In short, the emperor’s position is determined by the will of the people, irrespective of the historical background of the imperial system.

The current Imperial House Law did not provide for an abdication by the emperor. Yet in 2016, when Emperor Akihito expressed his wish to abdicate, every media opinion poll indicated that an overwhelming majority of the people supported his wish. In other words, the will of the people was demonstrated. Based on the will of the people, the government effectively revised the Imperial House Law — by enacting special one-off legislation — to pave the way for Emperor Akihito to retire. In this way, the latest imperial succession was carried out without a hitch in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.

The same logic applies to the question of imperial succession rules. Recent opinion surveys indicate that people are generally supportive of the creation of female-led imperial houses as well as allowing a reigning empress and succession on the maternal lineage.

Considering this, what the government needs to do is clear. It may also be important to hold hearings of experts, but what must be given the priority is to confirm the will of the people — by repeatedly holding well-prepared opinion polls.

Currently, there are only seven unmarried members of the imperial family — Prince Hisahito and six princesses. The youngest female member of the family — Princess Aiko, the daughter of the emperor — will turn 18 next month.

All of the six princesses have become old enough to marry anytime, but under the current law they will be stripped of their imperial status once they marry. It seems obvious to anybody that there’s not much time left to discuss the imperial succession rules. It is indeed an urgent matter.

These issues surrounding the imperial family under the Constitution on one hand, and the historical issue of exploring the roles played by the emperor system in Japanese history on the other, are subjects of entirely different dimensions.

If we follow the majority views of scholars, the origin of emperors (who can be traced with certainty) dates back to Emperor Keitai, who is believed to have ascended the throne in 507. It was when Empress Jito took the throne in 686 that the country started using the title “tenno” (emperor). She is considered to have become the model of Amaterasu Omikami, the mythical deity believed to be the direct ancestor to Japan’s emperors.

What this means is that the imperial family traces its origin to Amaterasu, a woman. (The title of tenno was indeed used as demonstration toward the Tang dynasty of China, which was a major power at that time. Following the collapse of the Tang dynasty, the title ceased to be used after the 946-967 reign of Emperor Murakami — until it came back in use under the 1780-1817 reign of Emperor Kokaku.)

Indeed, Japan has had eight reigning empresses (two of whom ascended the throne twice) — up until the late 18th century, during the Edo Period. Some of the emperors in our history are believed to have come from the maternal lineage of the imperial family — although the views of scholars are divided on the matter. The question of whether they had indeed been on the paternal or maternal lineage should be subject to purely academic study by scholars. That is an issue independent from the imperial system as defined under the postwar Constitution. We must not forget that.

Of course, each individual is free to take the historical background into account. Irrespective of whether the emperors in Japan’s history were 100 percent on the paternal lines of the family — or whether there were indeed emperors on the maternal lineage — it is only the will of the people that can determine the position of the emperor. This is the core of issue over imperial succession rules.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.