Japan’s Imperial Family in Crisis

Politics Society

Only males are eligible to succeed to the Japanese throne, but just one male has been born into the imperial family in the past four decades. In spite of this, moves to enhance the status of female members of the family face strong resistance from conservatives. Seasoned royal watcher Iwai Katsumi considers the crisis facing Japan’s imperial family.

A rapidly shifting political situation has put efforts to reform the Imperial Household Law on the backburner. With the shortage of eligible heirs growing more serious all the time, there is still no solution in sight to the crisis facing the Imperial Family.

Japan’s Dwindling Reserves of Royal Blood

Under the Imperial Household Law as it currently stands, only males in the male line of descent are eligible to succeed to the throne—women lose their imperial status when they marry. Since 1969, however, when a daughter was born to the Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko (now the emperor and empress), a succession of nine girls has been born into the family. Emperor Akihito, who is now 78 years old,(*1) has four grandchildren, but six-year-old Prince Hisahito is the only boy. He is currently third in line to the throne, after his uncle Crown Prince Naruhito (52) and his father Prince Akishino (46). As matters stand, it is quite possible that Prince Hisahito will take the throne as a “lonely emperor” without any imperial family members of his own generation. This would be a critical situation.

In response to this, the government started work earlier this year on revising the law to allow the emperor’s granddaughters (Prince Akishino’s daughters), Princess Mako (21) and Princess Kako (17), and Crown Prince Naruhito’s daughter, Princess Aiko (10)—to retain their status as members of the imperial family even after marriage.

In 2005, before Prince Hisahito was born, Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s Liberal Democratic Party government tried to revise the Imperial Household Law to make women eligible to succeed. This would have made it possible for Princess Aiko (the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, born in 2001) to become empress one day. The proposal ran into fierce opposition, and public opinion was sharply split. Then, just before the bill was due to go before the Diet, Prince Hisahito was born, the first eligible heir born into the family for 41 years, and the government abandoned its attempt to revise the law of succession.

It was against this background that the Noda government decided to undertake a less ambitious measure, choosing to leave the fundamental issue of female succession alone and proposing instead to allow princesses to retain their royal status after marriage. The five princesses born to cousins of the present emperor reached adulthood some years ago, and the emperor’s three granddaughters will also soon reach marriageable age. It was this sense of urgency that persuaded the government to press for a stopgap measure.

The Conservative Insistence on Male Succession

But for conservatives, even this partial relaxation of the rules looks like a threat. In their view, the proposed change would jeopardize the traditional rule of succession through the male line by granting royal status to the commoner husbands and children of princesses. Opposition from conservatives is a major obstacle to change. Some conservatives favor a different approach: They want to restore the cadet lines that were stripped of their royal status during the Allied occupation after World War II.

This solution has had support from Abe Shinzō, the former prime minister who was chosen to lead the opposition Liberal Democratic Party this September. If the LDP emerges victorious from the general election on December 16, it is likely to scrap the reforms envisaged by the current government.

With most of the surviving European monarchies now granting women the same rights of succession as men, this insistence on male-only, patrilineal succession in twenty-first-century Japan must seem like a puzzling anachronism to many people overseas. But for well over a thousand years, the Japanese monarchy has derived its legitimacy from its perceived status as the spiritual center holding the nation together. And this legitimacy has been based on an unbroken line of male descent. The mausoleums and tumuli of ancient emperors and the traditional rites that the emperor performs in honor of his divine antecedents highlight the emperor’s sacerdotal status. For many, it is this religious role that underlies his position as the symbol of the nation. Some people have argued that emperor has more in common with the Dalai Lama than the kings and queens of Europe.

The Princess Masako Crisis and the Problem Of Succession

The gravity of the situation has only been exacerbated by the ongoing crisis in the crown prince’s family, to which it is intimately related.

Crown Princess Masako (48) was educated at Harvard and Oxford and worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before marrying Crown Prince Naruhito in a blaze of media attention in 1993. Eight years later, after feverish national anticipation, she finally gave birth to a girl, Princess Aiko. But the longed-for male heir never arrived. The princess was later diagnosed with adjustment disorder as a result of constant media pressure and the stifling restrictions imposed by life in the imperial household.

Following medical advice to focus on private activities, Princess Masako has been absent from most palace events, trips, and official duties, instead pursuing an active schedule of private trips and amusements. She has also attracted criticism for the unconventional way she has behaved in regard to her daughter’s schooling. Princess Aiko is enrolled at the Gakushūin Primary School, where members of the Imperial Family have traditionally been educated. But when Aiko became traumatized after being teased by a classmate, her mother took the unprecedented step of accompanying her to class for a year and a half.

Particularly worrying is the rift that has apparently developed between the emperor and the crown prince and his consort. Masako has never been close to the emperor and empress, preferring to spend time with her own family. As a result, the crown prince and young Princess Aiko also tend to spend a lot of time away from the emperor and empress. This is in contrast to the crown prince’s younger brother, Prince Akishino, currently second in line to the throne. Prince Akishino and his family are regularly in the public eye not only because of Prince Hisahito, currently the only potential successor to the throne of his generation, but also because of the close contacts that Prince Akishino and his wife are careful to maintain with the palace. The prince and his wife play a prominent part in official events and traditional rites, and are also involved in academic research.

Next year will mark twenty years of marriage for the crown prince and Masako. Unfortunately, the New Year will mark Masako’s tenth year as a “dropout” from her official role. She has thus accumulated little experience for her future role as empress. Although public opinion was initially sympathetic to her struggles to adjust to a difficult new environment, a certain segment of the media has taken an increasingly critical view in recent years. Increasingly, the princess is regarded as having ducked her official duties to concentrate on her own private interests. Some observers have even started to whisper that the couple should divorce or that the crown prince should renounce his position as heir to the throne.

There are two main aspects of the revisions to the Imperial Household Law proposed by the Noda government. Firstly, by allowing princesses to keep their imperial status after marriage, it would create a pool of potential future female heirs. Secondly, it would mean that if and when Prince Hisahito becomes emperor, he would be able to count on the women in his family, including his two sisters, for support in his official duties. Both of these relate to a delicate question: Does the future of the imperial house lie with the crown prince or Prince Akishino?

The Imperial Family as a Symbol of National Stability

These are not easy times for Japan. The economy has been going nowhere for years, government finances are deep in the red, and the nation is still feeling the impact of last year’s disastrous earthquake and nuclear disaster. Internationally, the country is feeling the squeeze as tensions rise over Japan’s territorial disputes with its three main neighbors, China, South Korea, and Russia.

The DPJ has been unconvincing in government since taking power from the long-ruling LDP three years ago, and plummeting public support has finally forced the prime minister to call a general election. With many voters fed up of both major parties, a set of mainly conservative “third pole” parties has emerged, and there are signs of a major political realignment in the offing. After rising from defeat in World War II to become a major economic power under its current pacifist constitution, Japan is approaching a major turning point.

Combining an international outlook with its roots in Japanese tradition, the imperial family has often been regarded as a spiritual anchor. The danger now is that even this mainstay may be drifting from its moorings.

(Originally written in Japanese on November 19, 2012. Title background photo by the Sankei Shimbun.)

(*1) ^ This and the other ages given in this article are as of November 2012.

Abe Shinzō Akihito imperial system