Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has submitted the report of an expert panel on imperial succession to the Speaker of the Lower House and the Speaker of the Upper House, even though the document leaves many stones unturned.
It is highly doubtful whether the report can win widespread support among Japanese people now and in the future.
The report said it would be “premature” to try to discuss any changes to the rules of imperial succession as Prince Hisahito, Emperor Naruhito’s 15-year-old nephew and the only young male member of the imperial family, is still so young.
Hisahito is second in line to the throne, after his 56-year-old father, Crown Prince Fumihito, Naruhito’s 61-year-old younger brother.
The report argues that the most pressing challenge facing the nation’s imperial system is how to reverse the shrinking imperial family and says this should be tackled with a separate approach to the issue of succession rules.
The panel made two proposals to solve this conundrum. One calls for allowing female members of the Imperial Household to retain their royal status regardless of marriage. The other would allow men from the old branches of the Imperial family to regain their Imperial status through adoption, a measure that is currently not permitted.
Both proposals clearly reflect the fixed idea that only males of the patrilineal line should be allowed to succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The panel’s report slyly aims to kill the proposal to allow a daughter of the emperor or a child of the female line of the imperial family to succeed to the throne even if this idea is supported by a certain part of the public.
Regarding the first proposal, the report says that while female family members are allowed to retain their royal status after marriage, their spouses or children may possibly not be allowed to join the imperial family.
This statement appears to declare that the children of female members of the imperial family will never be heirs to the throne, even if it requires adopting a convoluted system that could lead to a situation where family members live with commoners.
This approach also runs counter to the panel’s avowed mission to come up with viable ideas for increasing the number of members of the Imperial Family to ease the burden of official duties carried out by Naruhito.
As for the approach to adoption, the report says only men should be allowed to be adopted into the Imperial family.
He specifically referred to men from 11 former branches of the imperial family as potential candidates. These branches were stripped of their royal trappings and downgraded to commoner status by reforms during the era of Allied occupation of Japan following the nation’s defeat in World War II.
Some constitutional experts, in interviews with the panel for the report, argued that this approach could violate the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on “family origin.” But their warnings were ignored.
The 11 families named in the report descended from the imperial family around 600 years ago and have lived as ordinary citizens since the end of the war.
In an apparent response to the view that allowing these people back into the fold now would not be welcomed by the public, the report said that if men were allowed to become members of the Imperial Family by adoption, they would would not be eligible to succeed The Throne.
But he made no reference to whether children born to these families should be considered imperial heirs, showing a stark difference between his effective snub and the idea of allowing children of female members to ascend the throne. .
Even if the second approach is chosen, the long-term sustainability of the system of imperial succession cannot be assured as long as only men of patrilineal lineage can accede to the throne. Those adopted into the imperial family and their family members would be under great pressure to produce male heirs.
In June 2017, both houses of the Diet called on the government to begin considering the challenges threatening a stable imperial succession and related proposals, including the establishment of branches of the imperial family headed by female family members. The legislature said such discussions should begin immediately upon Naruhito’s accession to the throne.
But previous administrations of former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga postponed the work. The panel’s belated report is far from an effective response to the Diet’s call.
The imperial system in a democratic society can only continue to exist if it is supported by a wide range of citizens. With the diversity of values among the Japanese set to grow further in the coming years, it is questionable whether the proposals made by the panel would ensure the long-term stability of the activities and succession of the imperial family.
Another question for both proposals is how the wishes of the individuals concerned are to be respected.
A serious and non-partisan debate on key questions concerning the future of the imperial system is called for.
–The Asahi Shimbun, January 13