Japanese succession controversy
Traditionally, the imperial throne was passed on under custom which resembled the rule of agnatic seniority. Theoretically, any male or female with patrilineal lineage to early Japanese monarchs, who descended in direct male line from the first emperor, Jimmu, could come to hold the Chrysanthemum throne. In practice, preference was given to first-born male offspring of a preceding male monarch, followed by his brothers, sons and other males of the immediate male-line family; and ultimately followed by representatives of Shinnoke houses, in other words, male-line relatives, occasionally very distant male cousins.
Because there existed no restrictions on remarriage or polygyny in historical Japan, there existed usually a plenitude of male relatives who could take over the throne. However, there are several historical instances of women holding the throne. An empress's offspring does not have claim to the throne from the said maternal lineage, so assigning a female to the throne had the convenient effect of postponing succession disputes.
On other occasions, the direct male heir was yet a toddler and unable to perform imperial rituals. In such instance, his mother, aunt or elder sister, if also held Imperial lineage through her patriline, temporarily took over the throne until the child came to puberty, which was deemed sufficient for a boy's accession.
After the Meiji Restoration, Japan imported the Prussian model of imperial succession, in which princesses were explicitly excluded from succession. More significantly, as a part of the effort to westernise and modernise Japan, the Japanese government banned polygamy, which was previously allowed to any family with noble rank (samurai or kuge), particularly if the first wife could not produce male offspring. After World War II, a further restriction was instituted. New rules meant that only the closest relatives of the then emperor Hirohito (children and descendants, siblings and their descendants) could be part of the official Imperial family, and have a claim to succession.
The current emperor, Akihito, has two sons: Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino; Prince Akishino is the father of the Emperor's only grandson, Prince Hisahito. The Emperor's brother Prince Hitachi has no children. The Emperor's uncle Prince Mikasa has no male-line grandsons.
Controversy exists as to what extent the current rule of succession under the Imperial Household Act of 1947 should be changed. Those on the Right advocate a change, holding the Prussian-style agnatic primogeniture, but bringing back the previously excluded male relatives into the Imperial household. Liberals would advocate the adoption of absolute primogeniture. Moderates would advocate re-adoption of earlier, indigenous customs of succession, that is, that a female can succeed to the throne as long as she holds precedence in seniority or proximity within the patrilineal kinship. The late Princess Takamatsu, the last surviving Arisugawa-Takamatsu and aunt to the current Emperor, advocated the traditional, customary rights of female princesses to succession, in her media interviews and articles, after the birth of princess Aiko.
Adoption of absolute primogeniture would permit, as has happened in history, unmarried or widowed female descendants in the male line of the Imperial House to inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne, but would also allow something unprecedented: it would allow married princesses and princesses' children whose fathers are not descendants in the male line of the earlier emperors, to ascend the throne. This scenario would mean that a new dynasty would take over the Chrysanthemum Throne. In Japan, as with much of the rest of the world, dynasties are defined patrilineally, although since most European royals do not need surnames for everyday use, female royals do not take the surname of their spouse; therefore they would not need a new dynasty unless they choose to.
Ruling Empresses in Japanese history
Eight women have served as tennō, i.e. reigning empresses, during the recorded history of Japan on ten occasions. Two of those empresses have, after abdicating, reascended the throne under different names. The last time Japan had a reigning Empress was in 1771, when Empress Toshiko "Go-Sakuramachi" abdicated in favor of her nephew, Emperor Go-Momozono.
The ruling empresses have been:
- Nukatabe, Empress Suiko (推古天皇 Suiko Tennō) was the 33rd empress of Japan from 593 until 628, according to the traditional order of succession, and the first historically attested woman to hold this position. She was the granddaughter of Tashiraga of Yamato, herself sister of the childless Emperor Buretsu, transferring some legitimacy in succession to the throne of Great Yamato to her husband Emperor Keitai. Tashiraga's mother had been Kasuga of Yamato, sister of the childless Emperor Seinei, whose own marriage with the future Emperor Ninken had a similar effect a generation earlier. According to legends, these ladies descended from the legendary Empress Jingu, who had been ruler (since Meiji-era rewrites of history, Regent) of Yamato for decades at some time in the past, probably in the mid-4th century (if she really existed), and who herself descended, according to legends, from Amaterasu omikami, the Sun Goddess of the Japanese pantheon.
- Takara, Empress Kogyoku (皇極天皇 Kōgyoku Tennō), also Empress Saimei (斉明天皇 Saimei Tennō) was the 35th and 37th empress of Japan, initially from February 18, 642, to July 12, 645, ascending upon the death of her uncle (who had also been her second husband). When she abdicated, her own younger brother succeeded her. However, upon the death of the said younger brother, she reascended the throne as Empress Saimei on February 14, 655, and ruled until her death on August 24, 661.
- Unonosasara, Empress Jito (持統天皇 Jitō Tennō) was the 41st imperial ruler of Japan, and ruled from 686 until 697.
- Ahe, Empress Gemmei (also Empress Genmyō; 元明天皇 Genmei Tennō) was the 43rd imperial ruler of Japan ruling from 707 – 715 (died December 7, 721).
- Hitaka, Empress Genshō (元正天皇 Genshō Tennō) was the 44th monarch of Japan (715-724).
- Abe, Empress Koken (孝謙天皇 Kōken Tennō) also Empress Shōtoku (称徳天皇 Shōtoku Tennō) was the 46th imperial ruler of Japan from 749 to 758, and the 48th from 764 to 770. Her posthumous name for her second reign (764-770) was Empress Shotoku.
- Okiko, Empress Meishō (明正天皇 Meishō Tennō) was the 109th empress of Japan, reigning from December 22, 1629, to November 14, 1643. She ascended upon the abdication of her father, being the eldest surviving child, holding priority over her younger brothers.
- Toshiko, Empress Go-Sakuramachi (後桜町天皇 Go-Sakuramachi Tennō) was the 117th empress of Japan, and ruled from September 15, 1762, to January 9, 1771. She abdicated in favor of her young nephew. Surviving over forty years, the retired Empress held all those decades the position of Dajo Tenno, and acted as sort of guardian of subsequent emperors.
Post Meiji-era laws
Women were barred from the throne for the first time in 1889 by a Prussian-influenced constitution during the 19th century Meiji Restoration. This prohibition was continued by the Imperial Household Act of 1947, enacted under Japan's post-World War II constitution during the American occupation. More importantly, as a part of reforming Japan, Japan introduced a ban on polygyny and the Meiji Emperor was the last to have an official secondary consort.
The 1947 law further restricts the succession to legitimate male descendants in the male line of Emperor Taishō only (excluding other male lines of the imperial dynasty, such as Fushimi, Higashikuni, Kitashirakawa, etc.), and specifically bars the emperor and other members of the imperial family from adopting children. During the recent controversy over the succession, commentators suggested that the current system could not possibly function in the long term as it is unlikely that there will always be a male heir to succeed to the throne.
Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako have one child, Princess Aiko, born on December 1, 2001. The child's birth, which occurred more than eight years after her parents' marriage and after the Crown Princess had considerable (and widely noted) difficulty in conceiving a child, sparked a lively debate in Japan about imperial succession. To add to this dearth of male heirs, Crown Prince Naruhito's brother, Prince Akishino, had only two daughters, Princess Mako of Akishino, born on October 23, 1991, and Princess Kako of Akishino, born December 29, 1994.
The two other collateral members of the Imperial Family also had only daughters. The late Prince Tomohito of Mikasa had two daughters, Princess Akiko of Mikasa, born December 20, 1981, and Princess Yōko of Mikasa, born October 25, 1983. The late Prince Takamado had three daughters, Princess Tsuguko of Takamado, born March 8, 1986, Princess Noriko of Takamado, born July 22, 1988, and Princess Ayako of Takamado born September 15, 1990. No male heir had been born into the Imperial Family in nearly 41 years.
In the early 2000s, the succession controversy emerged as a political issue. The Asahi Shimbun published an editorial in May 2006 suggesting that the current system was unsustainable. In an Asahi Shimbun survey in March 2006, 82% of the respondents supported the revision of the Imperial Household Law to allow a woman to ascend to the Imperial Throne. Then Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi also strongly supported the revision, pledging to present a bill to the 2006 session of the parliament.
Some conservative lawmakers opposed Koizumi and said the debate was premature. The current emperor's cousin, Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, also opposed the proposal, saying that the official male members of the Japanese imperial family might take up concubines in order to produce male members because it was previously possible for a male illegitimate child to assume the imperial throne. Later he said that this remark was just a joke. Another solution would be to restore the Shinnoke (agnatic collateral branches of the imperial dynasty which had been disinherited by the United States) to the line of succession.
Prince Akishino's wife, Princess Kiko, gave birth to a baby boy on September 6, 2006. The child, Prince Hisahito, is now third in line to the Imperial Throne. Following the birth of Prince Hisahito, the political debate surrounding succession subsided. Koizumi withdrew his bill, though public opinion polling suggested that support for the change was still around 68%.
Timeline of recent events
- On January 24, 2005, the Japanese government announced that it would consider allowing the Crown Prince and Princess to adopt a male child, in order to avoid a possible "heir crisis." Adoption from other male-line branches of the Imperial Line is an age-old imperial Japanese tradition for dynastic purposes, prohibited only in modern times by Western influence. The child would presumably be adopted from one of the former imperial branches which lost imperial status after World War II. A government-appointed panel of experts submitted a report on October 25, 2005, recommending that the imperial succession law be amended to permit equal primogeniture.
- In November 2005, it was reported that Emperor Akihito's cousin Prince Tomohito of Mikasa had objected to the reversal of the male-only succession, in a column of the magazine of the welfare association which he serves as president. Prince Tomohito had suggested four options to continue the male-only line succession there; the fourth was permitting the Emperor or Crown Prince to take a concubine, which was allowed by the former law of imperial succession.
- On January 20, 2006, Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi used part of his annual keynote speech to address the controversy when he pledged to submit a bill to the Japanese Diet letting women ascend to the throne so that imperial succession may be continued into the future in a stable manner. Koizumi did not announce any particular timing for the legislation to be introduced, nor did he provide details about its content, but said that it would be in line with the conclusions of the 2005 government panel.
- On February 1, 2006, former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma caused a controversy by arguing against the proposed reform bill because Princess Aiko might marry a foreigner in the future.
- On February 6, 2006, it was announced that Prince Akishino's wife Princess Kiko was pregnant, and would give birth due September.
- On September 6, 2006, Princess Kiko delivered a baby boy, later named Prince Hisahito. According to the current succession law he is third in line to the throne, but Princess Aiko, who now holds no right to succession, would have precedence over him as well as over her uncle if the law is changed.
- On January 3, 2007, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that he would drop the proposal to alter the Imperial Household Act.
- In September 2007, Abe's successor Yasuo Fukuda stated he was in favour of reforming the Imperial Household Law to allow female succession.
- In November 2009, in a speech commemorating his 20th anniversary since ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Akihito refrained from giving his own suggestions on the succession debate, but urged the government to consider the opinions of his sons Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino.
- On October 5, 2011, Shingo Haketa, Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Agency, visited Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at his office and told him that it was a matter of urgency to enable female members of the imperial family to create family branches. According to the Grand Steward, the imperial family cannot maintain its activities in a stable manner. Presently, 12 imperial family members are adults under the age of 60 and half of these are unmarried princesses between the ages of 20 and 30. If several of these princesses should leave the family through marriage in the near future, it would become more and more difficult for the imperial family to perform its duties. Considering that Prince Hisahito is at present the only grandson of Emperor Akihito eligible to assume the throne, the agency also said that it would be necessary to design a system to ensure stable succession to the imperial throne, although this would be a mid- to long-term concern. Grand Steward Haketa has reportedly been worried about the succession issue ever since he has taken the top post at the agency in 2005. After the Democratic Party of Japan won the election in September 2009, he explained the situation to Cabinet members, urging the government to address the issue. The government has been slow to act upon his request.
- On November 25, 2011, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said that a way had to be found to secure a "stable" accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne, expressing concern over the small number of successors to the crown. "The government is aware that future anxiety over securing a stable succession has not been resolved," Fujimura said. "Maintaining a steady succession is an issue that relates to the core of the nation and the government will consider it based on thorough discussions from various levels of the public." The next day, former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma, now a founding member of Sunrise Party of Japan, contended during a meeting with conservative organizations that the male line of imperial heirs should be maintained. Hiranuma suggested that if female members were allowed to remain in the family after marrying a commoner, they should try and marry a member of the eleven branches of the imperial family that were removed from the line of succession in October 1947. Hiranuma also proposed to reinstate the former branches in the Imperial family, to increase its size.
- On December 1, 2011, Prime Minister Noda called for a national debate on whether women should be allowed to retain their imperial status after marriage. He did not set any deadlines but declared his intention to build a framework to discuss the issue. Two days later, some government officials told Kyodo News that the issue of the female members' status "does not appear to be a pressing task. The government has no energy left to spare for that." According to Kyodo, a source close to the imperial family expressed concern because of the government's hesitant attitude. "It's obvious that the imperial family's range of activities will become narrower in the future without reforming the current system. A new system needs to be created before Princess Mako gets married. I'd like to see the public take more interest in the matter," said the source.
- On January 6, 2012, Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura told a press conference that the government recognized "that maintaining the stability of the activities of the Imperial Household and lessening the burden of official duties placed on Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress are major issues of a high degree of urgency." He announced that they would focus on discussing the status of female members and the possibility for them to create new family branches but that there would be no debate about giving succession rights to them or to their children. He announced that "in order to contribute to the discussion," expert hearings would take place once or twice every month. Former Supreme Court Justice and lawyer Itsuo Sonobe was appointed to the position of Special Advisor to the Cabinet to lead the hearings, "as he is highly knowledgeable about the Imperial Household system" and formerly served as deputy chairman of the Advisory Council on Imperial Household Law that recommended in 2005 that the right to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne should be expanded to women and imperial family offspring of female lineage.
- On January 7 and 8, 2012, a Kyodo News poll showed that 65.5% of the Japanese people supported the idea of allowing female members of the imperial family to create their own branches of the family and to retain their imperial status after marriage. The telephone survey drew valid responses from 1,016 eligible voters in 1,459 households randomly dialed across Japan, apart from parts of Fukushima Prefecture evacuated by the nuclear crisis.
- On February 10, 2012, a Japan Times editorial accused Fujimura of "beating around the bush" by solely talking about the importance of maintaining "the activities of the Imperial Family in a stable manner" and of lightening "the burden of the Emperor and Empress's official duties." It voiced concerns that "if male members of the Imperial Family become very few, it will become difficult to keep the Imperial line" and that "given the current situation of the Imperial Family, making a woman Imperial Family member serve as an emperor may become unavoidable," blaming the government for "shying away from discussing a possible situation in which there will be no males to succeed to the throne." Colin Jones, a law professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, warned that, without changes, there would not be a backup plan if Prince Hisahito should fail to have a son or be incapacitated in some way. "Monarchies have extended families just so that there’s a source of spares," Professor Jones said. "Over time there will be no other members of the imperial family to act as proxies." According to Jones, it is necessary to also address the succession issue as soon as possible, since it may be too late to do so by the time Hisahito becomes emperor. "They can’t just suddenly conjure up new imperials," he said. "They’ve got to do something now."
- On February 29, 2012, the first hearing took place. On this occasion Dr. Akira Imatani, Professor of medieval Japanese history at Teikyo University, and Soichiro Tawara, a journalist, gave their opinions. Both recommended that female members of the imperial family should retain their status after marriage. "Times have changed and Japan has become a society that promotes gender equality. I think refusing to allow females to maintain their status is an anachronism," Tahara told the government panel. Tahara and Imatani proposed that commoner husbands of imperial princesses be granted quasi-imperial status, which would permit them to attend official events while keeping their jobs, if even with some restrictions.
- On March 29, 2012, the second hearing took place. Dr. Masayuki Yamauchi, professor of international affairs at the Graduate School of The University of Tokyo, and Dr. Makoto Oishi, professor of constitutional law at the Graduate School of Kyoto University, also expressed their endorsement of princesses establishing their own branches. Yamauchi proposed, in order to reduce the burden on the public budget, to limit the eligibility to princesses within the second degree of kinship to the emperor. (Currently that group includes the three granddaughters of Emperor Akihito, Princesses Aiko, Mako and Kako.) According to Yamauchi, at some point in the future the imperial family may consist of a single nuclear family, that of Prince Hisahito, and support by female-headed family branches might prove helpful in avoiding such isolation.
- On April 10, 2012, the third hearing took place. The experts at this hearing were Yoshiko Sakurai and Professor Akira Momochi, and these two were the first to clearly oppose the idea of letting imperial women retain their royal status upon marriage. Professor Momochi teaches law at Nihon University, Japan's largest university. Ms. Sakurai is a well-known journalist and social critic in Japan, especially famous for her right-wing and sometimes ultra-nationalistic stance. Although there are no plans to give the princesses succession rights, Ms. Sakurai and Professor Momochi still have concerns that female-headed imperial family branches could eventually break the paternal lineage. As a solution to the decrease of imperial family members and the lack of eligible male heirs, they suggested revising the Imperial Household Law so that male descendants of former imperial families which renounced their royal status in 1947 be allowed to return to the imperial family as adoptees. Ms. Sakurai also proposed reinstating four of the former imperial branches. "There were too many, so they were cut back. Now we’re in the complete opposite position, why can’t we take the opposite measure?" she asked. The background to this statement is that up until the Meiji Restoration there were only four collateral branches of the imperial family, the shinnōke. In the 19th century, more houses were created from branches of the Fushimi-no-miya house, the ōke. By 1935, there were eleven collateral branches of the imperial family altogether, in addition to the families of Emperor Showa’s three brothers. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the government is against the idea of reinstating the former collateral branches, "saying it will be difficult to obtain public support as the descendants were born as commoners."
- On April 23, 2012, the fourth hearing took place. The experts at this hearing also backed the establishment of female branches of the imperial family. As the government plans to hear the views of "just under 20 experts," it is assumed that the hearings are halfway finished.
- On May 4, 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the government plans to consult the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and major opposition parties on a draft for the revision of the Imperial Household Act before submitting a bill to an extraordinary Diet session in autumn or to an ordinary sitting of the legislature next year. Looking back at the hearings, one government official said, "A wider than expected range of views have been expressed," talking about the proposal to expand the number of imperial family members by allowing men of the former princely houses to return to the imperial family as adoptees. Another idea that raised attention was allowing female imperial family members to retain the title of "princess" even after leaving the imperial family by marriage, so they could still take part in the royal family's activities despite losing the formal imperial family member status. As this idea has been supported by proponents and opponents of the creation of female-headed family branches, officials said that it could be a compromise if the discussion "remains inconclusive." As there are still controversial viewpoints concerning the possibility of allowing princesses to keep their royal status after marriage, "the leadership of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will be crucial to government reform of the system," government officials told the Yomiuri Shimbun. However, although Prime Minister Noda once underlined the urgency of the matter, he has not made any public remarks on this issue for many months. This has led to skepticism among some government officials about whether the issue is a major priority for him. A senior official of the Imperial Household Agency voiced his concern, telling the Yomiuri Shimbun, "When considering the near future, the system needs to change." According to the Imperial Household Law, the Empress as well as princesses are temporarily allowed to act on behalf of the emperor in state matters. That means that if female members of the imperial family were allowed to keep their royal status after marriage, they would be able to considerably alleviate the burden of the few male royals by taking over some of their duties.
- On May 27, 2014, Princess Noriko announced her engagement to commoner Kunimaro Senge. After her marriage on 5 October 2014, she left the imperial family.
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