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The Future of Japan’s Dwindling Imperial Family

Takahashi Kōichirō [Profile]


The upcoming wedding of Princess Noriko, the second daughter of Prince Takamado, may be welcome news, but the imperial family still faces dire prospects related to its decreasing numbers. No solution is in sight for averting the impending crisis.

An Imperial Family with Just Five Members?

In late May 2014, Princess Noriko became engaged to the eldest son of the chief priest of Izumo Taisha shrine. The 25-year-old princess is the second daughter of the late Prince Takamado, Emperor Akihito’s cousin. She will be leaving the imperial family when she weds her 40-year-old fiancé in the fall, as dictated by the Imperial House Law. Prince Katsura, Prince Takamado’s older brother, passed away at the age of 66 just 12 days after the engagement was announced, while their eldest brother, Prince Tomohito, passed away two years ago. Only male offspring in the male line whose father or paternal grandfather was an emperor can succeed to the throne in Japan, and age and the marriage of female members are now presenting the imperial family with a crisis in numbers.

Princess Noriko’s wedding will bring the imperial family down to 20 members, including Emperor Akihito. Five of them are eligible to the throne, in the following order: (1) Crown Prince Naruhito (elder son of Emperor Akihito, age 54), (2) Prince Akishino (younger son of Emperor Akihito, age 48), (3) Prince Hisahito (grandson of Emperor Akihito and son of Prince Akishino, age 7), (4) Prince Hitachi (younger brother of Emperor Akihito and younger son of Emperor Shōwa, age 78), and (5) Prince Mikasa (fourth son of Emperor Taishō and youngest brother of Emperor Shōwa, age 98). (Ages given are as of the end of June 2014.)

Realistically speaking, Prince Hitachi and Prince Mikasa will probably die before their turn comes around. Neither the crown prince and princess nor Prince and Princess Akishino can be expected to bear any more children, given their age. The only hope for the continuation of the male line is that Prince Hisahito will one day marry a woman and have a son. Half of the 14 female members are either single or underage and are likely to eventually marry out of the family. In anywhere from 10 to 30 years, the imperial family could dwindle down to just 5: the crown prince and princess, Prince and Princess Akishino, and Prince Hisahito.

More than anyone, Emperor Akihito himself fears the cessation of the imperial family. “The question of the imperial succession was always an urgent issue,” reveals Former Grand Chamberlain Watanabe Makoto, who served under the emperor for over 10 years, until 2007. “The issue plagued His Majesty’s mind constantly and so deeply that it kept him up some nights.”

The Constitution of Japan stipulates that the emperor “shall not have powers related to government,” preventing him from changing the laws regarding the imperial family at will. Emperor Akihito must quietly endure the torture of being unable to do anything about the crisis befalling his own family.

A Historical Safety Net Removed

Emperor Akihito is descended in a direct male line from Emperor Kōkaku, who reigned six generations ago, in the late Edo period (1603–1868). Emperor Kōkaku’s son and successor, Emperor Ninkō, was not the empress’s child but that of a concubine. Emperors Kōmei, Meiji, and Taishō were all born to concubines as well, and Emperor Meiji’s empress consort did not bear a single child. According to the Imperial Household Agency, nearly half of the 125 emperors were men born out of wedlock.

Emperor Meiji is often depicted as a strong man, but of the 5 boys and 10 girls whom he bore between his 5 concubines, 2 were stillborn and 8 died in infancy. The only son who lived to adulthood was Emperor Taishō. The Chrysanthemum Throne barely made it to the next generation.

Even if Emperor Meiji had no sons, however, an heir probably would have been chosen from among the princely houses related to the emperor, following precedent. Historically, there have been instances of 8- or 10-degree relatives from collateral houses succeeding to the throne. Until the Meiji era (1868–1912), concubines and collateral houses served to provide a safety net to ensure succession by males in the male line of descent.

Emperor Taishō was a man of letters and chose not to have concubines. Although he was prone to illness since childhood and sat on the throne for only 15 years, he and the empress had four children, all sons: Emperor Shōwa, Prince Chichibu, Prince Takamatsu, and Prince Mikasa. For a while, the imperial succession appeared secure.

Emperor Shōwa also took no concubines, valuing family. After four daughters, Emperor Akihito was born in 1933, followed by Prince Hitachi.

The post–World War II Imperial House Law of 1947 excluded illegitimate offspring from the imperial family and did not allow them to succeed to the throne. Meanwhile, the rule that only male offspring in the male line could become emperor was carried over from the Meiji Imperial House Law.

At the time, Emperor Shōwa had three younger brothers, as well as two sons, so there was little concern about male-line succession.

  • [2014.07.25]

Born in 1965. After a stint as a reporter for the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, he joined the Kyodo News agency in 1993. Covered stories on the imperial family, transport, and the 2002 World Cup jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea, among other topics. Headed the Fukushima branch of Kyodo News from 2012 to 2014 and became editorial director of the Sendai branch in July 2014.

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