Diet Shelves Discussion on Female Emperor Despite Public Support

Imperial Family Politics

Although opinion polls show considerable support for Princess Aiko ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the Diet has avoided the debate. Kanno Shiori, a former House of Representatives member, speaks about the reluctance of many politicians to grapple with this important issue.

Kanno Shiori

Lawyer and head of the International Humanitarian Platform. After graduating from the University of Tokyo with a degree in law, served as a prosecutor before being elected to the House of Representatives in 2009. Was a Diet member for three terms totaling 10 years, serving in posts including policy chief of the Democratic Party of Japan. Left the part in 2020, when it was the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and joined the Democratic Party for the People, where she was in charge of constitutional policy issues. During her time in the Diet she focused on imperial household and constitutional questions, as well as the shortage of space in nursery schools for the nation’s children. Left office in 2021; is currently a member of a Consumer Affairs Agency committee tackling the problem of predatory sales by religious organizations, including the former Unification Church.

Only in Nagatachō is Support for Patrilineal Succession Rising

Kanno Shiori, who spent 10 years in the Diet before retiring in 2021, was a guest speaker at a public event, “Making Aiko the Imperial Heir,” held in Tokyo in July of this year. Organized by manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori, the event highlighted the significant attitude gap between the public and Nagatachō, the Tokyo district home to both the Diet and the Prime Minister’s Office.

On the situation in Nagatachō surrounding the current imperial succession debate, Kanno says:

“The Japanese public decisively supports not only a female emperor but allowing matrilineal succession, which would place the children of female emperors on the Chrysanthemum Throne. In the seats of power, however, support continues to grow for keeping succession restricted to the male line, or patrilineal succession only.”

Kanno Shiori presents her argument at the public event “Making Aiko the Imperial Heir” in Tokyo, July 2023. (Courtesy of the event organizers)
Kanno Shiori presents her argument at the public event “Making Aiko the Imperial Heir” in Tokyo, July 2023. (Courtesy of the event organizers)

Kanno believes that on imperial household issues, many Diet members are only “lukewarm” conservatives or liberals, not truly committed to a position:

“They are not familiar with nor particularly interested in this issue. Lukewarm conservatives will gravitate toward defending the ‘male-only lineage’ position by default, knowing that is what self-styled conservatives in Japan do. Their positions, however, are not well-defined.”

Meanwhile, according to Kanno, lukewarm liberals, including many members of the opposition, “also lack a clearly defined position or attitude on imperial household issues.” This in her opinion means they are “easily swayed” by their perception of the political consensus.

Despite believing that the status and future of the imperial household is a fundamental issue for the nation, Kanno regrets that “not many members of either the ruling or opposition parties participate in their own parties’ meetings or study groups on the issue.” In her view, “as liberals are particularly uninterested in the issue, they cede influence over political narratives to conservatives who use the defense of patrilineal succession as a symbolic political banner to demonstrate their conservatism. Debate on imperial household issues is therefore led by ideological conservatives, and both lukewarm conservatives and even liberals are pulled along by the tide on the issue of imperial succession.”

Discussion Out of Sight

The general attitude of the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on imperial succession is that they only want to “deepen debate in a calm environment.” However, Kanno believes there is a fine line between a “calm debate” and one designed to exclude the public:

“The government has intentionally narrowed the range of debate and its participants. I don’t sense any desire to open discussion to the public or gather public input. I am rather concerned that they are trying to impose their own preferences on the way the imperial family should look in the future. This came through clearly in the 2021 report back to the government by a so-called panel of experts.”

This report recommended that the government continue to restrict imperial succession to the male lineage alone, thereby making Prince Hisahito—the eldest son of Prince Akishino (the current emperor’s brother)—the future emperor. The report also proposed considering allowing male descendants of nobles who lost their imperial status after World War II to reclaim this status. However, the possibility of an “Emperor Aiko” was curiously ruled out by the panel.

This stands in direct opposition to the 2005 report on imperial succession released during the administration of Koizumi Jun’ichirō. Despite also being drawn up under an LDP-led government, this report concluded that it would be extremely difficult to maintain a stable male line of succession in the future. It recommended beginning discussion to open the way for a female emperor and allow both matrilineal and patrilineal succession. This would mean no distinction would be made between male and female descendants of an emperor, and the order of succession to the throne would prioritize any children of the emperor based on age, not gender, with the eldest child being first in line to take the throne. At the time, it was assumed that a change in legislation would make Princess Aiko the Crown Princess, but owing to the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006, there have been no further moves to submit legislation in line with the 2005 panel’s recommendations.

Kanno notes that the panel of experts appointed to consider this issue during the Koizumi administration included notable Japanese citizens such as the former Supreme Court justice Sonobe Itsuo, who has written extensively on the imperial family, and Ogata Sadako, the first Japanese citizen to serve as the UN high commissioner for refugees. It also met 17 times before reaching the conclusions outlined in the report.

Kanno is critical of the reluctance of Japanese politicians to act on the initial report “More than fifteen years passed between that initial report and the most recent one. During that time, the imperial household has only seen its numbers shrink. Furthermore, Prince Hisahito is the only male member of his generation eligible to succeed to the throne, putting the whole family in jeopardy. One wonders how the 2021 report came to the conclusion it did, given the urgency of the current situation.”

Kanno also points out that the report states that “discussions on the succession to the throne after Prince Hisahito should be undertaken in the future, taking into consideration the circumstances surrounding Prince Hisahito’s age, marriage, and other factors.” Kanno argues, however, that this “completely misses the point.” In her view, the panel’s report seemed designed to appease the male-lineage-only faction, thereby avoiding making any decision about who will sit at the center of the imperial household and ensure its longevity.

A Taboo Against Discussing the Akishino Household?

At the “Making Aiko the Imperial Heir” event, one speaker made an interesting observation. Many people assume that the next emperor will be Prince Akishino, due to the Rikkōshi-no-Rei ceremony that took place in November 2020 designating him as the presumptive heir to the throne. The panel report released soon afterward further cemented this viewpoint. There also appears to be a campaign to make discussion of matrilineal imperial succession a taboo subject out of respect for the Akishino household. Given this atmosphere, politicians have become reluctant to touch on the issue. This has allowed those exclusively supporting patrilineal succession to take the advantage and delay public discussion.

Panelists debating the succession issue at the “Making Aiko the Imperial Heir” event in Tokyo, July 2023. (Courtesy of the event organizers).
Panelists debating the succession issue at the “Making Aiko the Imperial Heir” event in Tokyo, July 2023. (Courtesy of the event organizers).

Such developments have also stifled debate on revision of the Imperial Household Law in the Diet—the so-called “seat of public discourse.” Kanno notes that the attempt to make discussion a taboo “uses the vague respect many politicians have for the imperial household against the public interest. It is completely legitimate for the Diet to debate the imperial succession issue and politicians should take a greater interest in leading debate based on accurate knowledge about the relevant issues.”

Kanno also laments that imperial household issues have not featured in Japanese elections. One reason for this, she says, is that “if you are steadfastly in support of patrilineal succession, then this can be used to your advantage for winning the loyalty of the core conservative vote. However, there are very few votes that can be won by coming out in support of a female emperor or matrilineal succession. Changing this situation is of the utmost urgency.”

Yes to a Female Emperor, No to the Female Line

Some supporters of exclusive patrilineal succession have actually indicated acceptance of Princess Aiko becoming the emperor in the future. That is because Aiko, while female, is the child of the current emperor, making her a patrilineal descendant. Indeed, there have been eight female emperors in Japanese history who claimed the throne based on patrilineal descent. However, even if Princess Aiko ascends to the throne, if the current male lineage-only system remains in place, any children “Emperor Aiko” gave birth to would not be eligible to succeed their mother due to their matrilineal descent.

Some members of the ruling and opposition parties have therefore been heard to say things along the lines of “a female emperor is one thing, but allowing an emperor from the female lineage is something else . . .” In other words, they would accept a woman on the throne, but would draw the line at supporting her children in the line of succession.

Furthermore, the parties have not settled on a fixed position due to their own internal fissures on the issues. At a press conference during the 2021 LDP presidential election, two of the four LDP candidates—current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Takaichi Sanae—explicitly opposed a female line of imperial succession. Another, Noda Seiko, said she was open to the option, while Kōno Tarō made no comment on the issue. Some members of the opposition parties, including the left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, also oppose matrilineal succession. The lack of intraparty consensus is therefore a barrier to wider discussion among the parties.

Kanno, a former member of the CDPJ herself, suggests that many liberal lawmakers take the stance that accepting a female emperor would be a good way to find common ground, but that matrilineal succession would be too much, given Japanese tradition. Kanno herself rejects this, saying that “a female emperor and matrilineal succession are connected by a single thread and cannot be so easily disconnected. If we allow a female emperor like Princess Aiko, and she has a child, it would be strange if the emperor’s child and direct descendant could not ascend to the throne.”

Her personal belief is that “anyone who is a child of an emperor would have greater legitimacy and would be better supported by the Japanese people. The whole notion of patrilineal succession is no longer familiar to most Japanese. Having a male heir from an alternative imperial line suddenly come in to sit on the throne because of adherence to patrilineal succession would strike most Japanese today as highly unusual.”

Kanno also calls for female Diet members to stand by female members of the imperial household. In addition to the great pressure placed on crown princesses to give birth to sons, the revision of the Imperial Household Law remains in limbo, which means many female members of the imperial household are unsure of their future. “Should they get married?” asks Kanno. “Will they be able to remain in the imperial household in the future if they delay marriage? Understanding the burdens placed on female imperial household members is something that female Diet members should be more vocal about. They should say, ‘Let’s hurry up and get this done!’”

No Forum for Public Debate

LDP President and current Prime Minister Kishida stated at the LDP party convention in February earlier this year that coming up with a policy for allowing stable future succession to the throne is an issue that cannot be postponed, promising discussion on this topic in the Diet.”

However, there has been no movement since then. Kanno believes that this may well be part of the plan:

“The Diet has no dedicated forum for discussing imperial household issues. If there was, at least the most persuasive side would win the debate. However, I think many in Nagatachō—and conservative politicians in particular—are well aware of the weakness of the male-lineage-only position, and resist the creation of any Diet forum that would facilitate public discussion or debate. I suspect that they are also purposely stalling for time, hoping that Princess Aiko will take the next step in her life.”

This step would likely be marriage to a commoner, causing the princess to leave the imperial household under current rules. If this took place, the Diet would be under less pressure to face controversial questions about future imperial succession.

Kanno acknowledges that the members of imperial household seem prepared to live and plan their lives with consideration for the people of Japan, but nevertheless believes “it is a shame that the political logic of Nagatachō dictates their life choices and causes suffering—especially given how far-removed political leaders appear to be from the sentiment of the Japanese public. I am very concerned about the lack of direction. It’s possible that Princess Aiko will be forced to leave the imperial household if she marries a commoner, simply because of the reluctance of Japanese politicians to debate this important issue.”

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: The Emperor and Empress and Princess Aiko strolling on the grounds of the Nasu Imperial Villa, Tochigi Prefecture, August 21, 2023. © Jiji.)

emperor imperial family Princess Aiko