Japan’s Imperial family: Looking for continuity


Future empress? : Japan's Princess Aiko.Japanese lawmakers kicked off discussions on May 17 about possible relaxations to the imperial family's strict succession rules. — Reuters

THE decline in the number of Japan’s Imperial family members is an issue that affects the continuation of the Imperial family system. The Reiwa era is now in its sixth year. It appears to be about time for the Japanese government and the ruling and opposition parties to reach a conclusion on the matter, and not leave various problems unaddressed.

In March, the Liberal Democratic Party’s met to discuss the issue of securing a stable Imperial succession met for the first time in four months. As a concrete measure to secure the Imperial family system, its members reached a consensus that it is desirable for female members to retain their Imperial status after marriage.

On May 17, Japanese lawmakers kicked off discussions on possible relaxations to the imperial family's strict succession rules, although women will likely remain barred from the Chrysanthemum Throne.

This file photo taken on December 5, 2021 shows Japan's Princess Aiko, daughter of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, greeting members of the media on the occasion of her coming-of-age at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, after celebrating her 20th birthday on December 1. Japanese lawmakers kicked off discussions on May 17, 2024 about possible relaxations to the imperial family's strict succession rules, although women will likely remain barred from the Chrysanthemum Throne. — AFPThis file photo taken on December 5, 2021 shows Japan's Princess Aiko, daughter of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, greeting members of the media on the occasion of her coming-of-age at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, after celebrating her 20th birthday on December 1. Japanese lawmakers kicked off discussions on May 17, 2024 about possible relaxations to the imperial family's strict succession rules, although women will likely remain barred from the Chrysanthemum Throne. — AFP

The Imperial House Law stipulates that a female Imperial family member loses her Imperial status upon marriage. The Imperial family currently comprises 17 members, including the Emperor, the Empress, the Emperor Emeritus and the Empress Emerita. There are five unmarried female members, among them Princess Aiko, the daughter of the Emperor and the Empress; and Princess Kako, the second daughter of Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko.

Female Imperial family members participate in events at the Imperial Palace, such as the New Year’s poetry reading and rituals to pray for the happiness of the people. They are also involved in international exchanges through overseas visits, and help promote sports in their capacity as honorary presidents of sports organisations and other positions. If female members continue to leave the Imperial family, it will be difficult for the family to keep performing its various official duties. It is worth considering allowing female members to keep their Imperial status after marriage.

In 2012, when the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan was in power, the Cabinet of then prime minister Yoshihiko Noda proposed the creation of female-line Imperial branches to allow female members to stay in the Imperial family after marriage. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which has its roots in the DPJ, has also called for the creation of female Imperial branches.

The LDP has been cautious about establishing such branches. Its hesitation stems from concern that if a child is born into a female Imperial branch, that might spark debate over whether the child should be given the right to succeed to the Imperial throne, possibly shaking the current system in which the Imperial succession is limited to male offspring in the family’s paternal line. However, it is hard to imagine how the system would work to have female members remain in the Imperial family without approving female Imperial branches. The LDP should present a specific proposal.

To secure a sufficient number of members of the Imperial family, a government expert panel proposed in 2021 a plan to allow the current Imperial family to adopt descendants of former Imperial family branches that lost their status after World War II. Can understanding be gained from the public for the idea of descendants of former Imperial branches, who have lived as commoners for a long time, abruptly being restored to Imperial status? Procedures would also likely be needed to confirm the wishes of the persons concerned.

A stable succession to the Imperial throne is one of the grave issues facing the Imperial family. In the next generation, Prince Hisahito, the son of the Akishino family, has the right to assume the throne, so neither the government nor the ruling and opposition parties appear to be in a hurry to consider this issue. However, it is crucial to hold discussions from now with an eye toward the future, in order to maintain the system that positions the Emperor as the symbol of the State. — The Yomiuri Shimbun/ANN


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