The December 2, 2001 birth of Crown Princess Masako's first child, a baby girl named Aiko, has again brought to the forefront the issue of Japan's Imperial succession.

According to the Imperial Household Law, "the Imperial Throne shall be inherited by a male of patrilineal imperial descent." The exact order laid out in the law, and the current line of succession, is:

  1. the eldest son of the emperor
  2. the eldest son's eldest son
    • none
  3. other sons and grandsons of the eldest son
    • none
  4. the second eldest son and his sons and grandsons
  5. other imperial sons and grandsons
    • none
  6. imperial brothers and their sons and grandsons
  7. imperial uncles and their sons and grandsons.

However, princes Hitachi, Mikasa and their issue are all older than Akishino, making them unlikely to succeed. Since 1965, only female children have been born into the Imperial family, including Princess Nori, the daughter of the reigning Emperor and Empress; Princesses Mako and Kako, the children of Prince Akishino; and now Aiko, the first daughter of the Crown Prince, who would be second in line if the law of succession is changed. In almost ten years of marriage, Crown Princess Masako (37 years old) has given birth once and miscarried once, so having a male heir is starting to appear unlikely.

There is considerable precedent for having a female Emperor (Empress), since no less than eight women have held the throne at one time or another. However, it has been well over one thousand years since the last of real Empress (Shotoku, 764-770), and while records are spotty, it appears that the Empresses were only allowed to reign while male candidates were underage and that they were often mere puppets of the real rulers. Shotoku -- a fervent advocate of Buddhism, who elevated a monk to the post of Chief Minister and seemed intent on making him Emperor -- seems to have been an exception, which may also explain why the practice of allowing females to succeed ended with her. (The sole Empress after Shotoku, Go-Sakuramachi 1762-1771, was just a placeholder until the late emperor's son came of age.)

Japan's political parties, the press and the public seem to support the extension of the right of succession to women nearly unanimously. (The primary exception is the Japanese Communist Party, which opposes the entire institution of having an Emperor.) Opposition to the change seem to come from some of the more extreme nationalist elements and, above all, the sheer inertia of the Imperial Household Agency, which regulates the life of the world's oldest monarchy and is very keen on maintaining traditions. But as the alternative seems to be extinction, I suspect a change in the rules is only a matter of time...


thbz's excellent writeup "Emperors of Japan"

The problems concerning the Japanese succession run very deep. gn0sis is very right in saying that the Imperial Household Agency is a great obstacle to change. When I was last in Kyoto (the old capital) I talked to the official guide after a fairly good (if touristy) tour. She was a woman and not too old, so I thought I would have an “enlightened” conversation. And she was perfectly nice and sensible. Until I mentioned the succession. The discussion went similar to this….

Me: “So what do you think will happen about the succession law? Do you think Princess Aiko will become Empress?”
IHA Woman: “Well there was a lot of hoo-ha-ha from a few people but I don’t think most Japanese see the need for change. The Emperor has a lot of sons and male relatives, so it won’t be a problem.”
Me: “Oh. Really…..”

What was worrying was that her eyes were saying that she really believed that. But as gn0sis pointed out, Crown Prince Naruhito’s male relatives are far too old to either produce male heirs, or be anything other than a temporary stop-gap if Naruhito died at an early age. Coupled with the fact that Crown Princess Masako has unfortunately had problems with giving birth, this is likely to mean that there will be no male heirs.

It is also a lie to say that only a minority of people want a change in the law. A survey by Jiji Press news agency in November 2001 showed the following opinions.

55.2% were in favour of a female ruling monarch
7.9% were not in favour of a female ruling monarch
(This leaves 36.9% that did not have an opinion)

This showed a rise in support for a ruling empress from 53% in December 1999. Though there are of course people who are not interested in such matters, support sky-rocketed after the birth of Princess Aiko, after the poll mentioned here. Yomiuri Shimbun (Dec. 29) had an editorial labelled “Sparks of hope in a dark year”. It wrote

“This year has made us sense that our country is in a critical phase in many respects, forcing us to do some serious soul-searching....The birth of a new life brings joy, and we know the public sincerely wishes the new princess health and peace.”

There was a marked increase in the purchase of baby products and as well as indications that the birth rate could increase, spontaneous street parties and decorations being put up. The latter was fairly rare but as whole, the birth of a baby girl lifted the nation, if only briefly. But support for a ruling empress was not temporary, nor as I have shown did it occur quickly. Ordinary Japanese are still baffled by the law. And although it is true to say that there are MPs in almost every political party who support a change in the law, there are those who oppose it.

Japan’s political system is currently plagued by conservatives who wield a great deal of power in the LDP. They are a block on Junichiro Koizumi’s attempts at economic reform and equally on almost any change in the status quo. For reasons that are not too clear, they are very hostile towards women in the Imperial family. The main reason seems to be that they are viewed as a reforming influence, especially as they are “commoners” (that’s ordinary people, to us). Many of the princesses were hounded by conservative elements of the Press, with pointless headlines such as

“SHOCK! Princess so-and-so walks three feet in front of her husband the Prince. What is Japan coming to?…..” Etc, etc, etc.

This might sound tame but the opposition is real. Although Koizumi did not say that he opposed the idea of a ruling empress, he said that there was no need to rush into things. But it would take a half-day’s debate in the Diet’s lower chamber to amend the law. So it can only be a sign that some individuals are desperately hoping that a male heir will be born in the next few years and pressuring for reform to be put off. Either that, or they are so stubborn that they won’t give in until they absolutely have to.

People in Japan are very aware of these kinds of individuals and solemnly nod their heads if you ask them about political corruption, opposition to reform and so on. It is something that they regret but by themselves can do little about. But the level support for a ruling empress is high and at the end of the day, Japan needs a monarch. They cannot hold out forever.

Update, 20.5.04

Recently, Crown Prince Naruhito gave a press conference, describing his wife's illness. This has been going on for several months and doctors are worried that the depression she is suffering from might get worse. Her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, had a nervous breakdown earlier on in her life - it is rumoured Masako-hime has suffered one too.

Prince Naruhito carefully alluded to the pressure she is under to have a male heir. More important, perhaps is the isolation she has suffered since moving to the Imperial Palace. The family have no direct telephone line and no money of their own - every purchase is accounted for. They are hardly ever allowed out of the Palace and improptue visits my her friends are not allowed for "security reason". As other royal families, like the British, can do so, is this a case of Masako-hime deliberately being isolated by the Imperial Household Agency? Certainly the prince made clear his belief that his wife's personality was being stifled.

"In fact, there were moves which nullified Masako's career, and nullified her character based on that career".

Such a frank admission was completely out of character for the Imperial family. Normally all responses are planned long before, but the prince decided to diverge from the planned response about his wife. One can only assume that the situation is very serious, else he would not have broken with tradition so suddenly. The succession law is still under review and no indications have been made as to when it will be changed to allow women to sit on the throne.

However the wind seems to be changing direction. The prince, a sometimes shy man, is now clearly highlighting the problem. When he wooed Masako-hime, he famously said "Masako-san, I will protect you for my entire life". After many years, some very difficult and strenuous, he is finally doing so.


World Press Review, March 2002
Yomiuri Shimbun, 29th December 2001
INQ7, 2nd December 2001
The Times, 11th May 2004

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