Should a Female Successor Be Allowed to Ascend the Japanese Imperial Throne?

  • The engagement of Princess Mako (眞子さま), the eldest grandchild of Emperor Akihito (明仁さま), sparked not only a celebration of a joyous affair but also a debate on the status of women in the Royal Family. Japan’s Imperial Family follows the Imperial Household Law (皇室典範), which was in place since 1947 when the Emperor became a symbol of unity instead of being regarded as a god. Under this law, Princess Mako will no longer be part of the Royal Family once she gets married, and any children she will have – regardless of gender – will have no right to the throne.

    Current Imperial Family

    Currently, there are just 19 contemporary members of the Royal Family. Most of the former princesses are already married and have lost their royal status. The number of the Royal Family members is dwindling as it is, but the added factor of the Imperial Household Law narrows down the number of eligible heirs even more.

    There are currently just five male members of the royal family: Emperor Akihito himself (83 years old), his brother Prince Hitachi (常陸宮さま; 81 years old), Emperor Akihito’s sons, Crown Prince Naruhito (徳仁さま; 57 years old) and Prince Akishino (秋篠宮さま; 51 years old), and Prince Akishino’s son, Prince Hisahito (悠仁さま; 10 years old). Under the current law, only sons who came from the male lineage can inherit the throne, which means that any future heir must be the son of any of the mentioned names to be eligible to the throne.

    The law also states that a princess will lose her title as well as her official duties the moment she marries a commoner. Naturally, none of her children will be given a royal title – regardless of gender.

    The Debate

    With the upcoming wedding of Princess Mako, Japan will lose yet another important member of the Royal Family; and so experts on the Imperial Family system are urging for the Imperial Household Law to be reformed in such a way that the female members of the Royal Family can retain their royal status even after marriage and for their children to be granted royal status as well. Furthermore, the Democratic Party is pushing for the law to allow female successors to the throne which, if passed, may result in a future where Japan’s Royal Family will be led by an Empress.

    In response, the Japanese parliament noted in an addendum last Friday, June 9, 2017, that they will be considering the issue of women in the Royal Family retaining their official titles and duties even after marrying commoners. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (安倍晋三) stated on the same day that having a stable Imperial succession is very important and he has agreed to examine the issue.

    Previous Discussions and People’s Opinion

    This is not the first time that such discussions were made. After the birth of Crown Prince Naruhito’s only child, Princess Aiko (愛子さま), the government was considering the possibility of a female heir to the throne. The talks were abandoned, however, in 2006, when Prince Hisahito was born. Hopefully this time, the government will be able to push through with the reform of the Imperial Household Law, especially since the public seems to be in favor of the move.

    In fact, in a poll by Kyodo News (共同通信社) released in June 2017, 86 percent said they were in favor of a female heir to the throne. In addition, 59 percent are in favor of children born of royal women being allowed to ascend the throne. Basically, people in Japan reacted positively to a female lineage Royal House.

    Temple University’s Director of Asian Studies and an expert on modern Japanese history, Professor Jeff Kingston, explained this positive reaction as Japan’s desire to be in sync with 21st-century norms and to avoid being stuck in the rigid old-fashioned approach.
    True enough, interviews both with the younger generation and older generation echoed this sentiment.

    21-year-old Nami Morooka said, “I think we should have an imperial family that is more in line with current times. I don’t think we need to be tied to old ways.”

    Likewise, an 80-year-old man who declined to be named, said, “I don’t understand why anyone would be against a female emperor. England has their queen and there’s no issue with that. I think any dissent to the idea would be very strange.”

    Being the world’s oldest monarchy, all eyes are on Japan’s Royal Family, especially now that Emperor Akihito is set to abdicate the throne and that Princess Mako’s engagement caused a nationwide celebration. Now, more than ever, people need to see stability in the Royal lineage. This is the perfect time for a change in the Imperial Household Law, and people are hoping that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a leader who is well known for promoting women empowerment, will be able to lead this change.

    Personally, I think having a female lineage in the Royal House will be beneficial. It is such an archaic notion to cast out women from the Royal Family just because of their gender and who they marry. Royalty is a princess’ birthright. That is her identity and no one should be able to take that away from her. Similarly, the throne is for the heir regardless if that heir is male or female, so I believe women should be allowed to ascend Japan’s Imperial throne.

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