Results from a poll published recently have suggested that 68% of the Japanese people may be in favour of an Empress-Regent of Japan.
As of today, Japan operates under agnatic primogeniture. Only male heirs may inherit, and female members of the Imperial Household are passed over. The only way there can be an Empress is by marriage to the Emperor; so a woman may never sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne in her own right. In recent decades, however, the idea of male-only succession has come under increasing criticism from Japanese figures who believe that the traditional method of succession is placing the Imperial Household in jeopardy.
Before the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006, there were grave concerns that the Japanese monarchy may be walking into a succession crisis with the absence of a male heir after Crown Prince Naruhito. This danger prompted discussions among the Japanese government about amending the Imperial Household Act of 1947 to allow for a female inheritance to the Japanese monarchy, with a panel appointed to study the law and recommend a course of action. The birth of Prince Hisahito rendered the talks moot, and by 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he was no longer considering any change in the Imperial Household Act.
The problem, however, has not been solved, merely delayed until the next generation. A major issue affecting the Imperial Family right now is its small pool of heirs. As of this moment, the line of succession to the Japanese throne only counts four people. In contrast, there are over thirty in line to the British throne. Prince Hisahito is also the only new male member of the Imperial Family after a long chain of princesses. If current trends continue, then Prince Hisahito himself may soon be faced with the prospect of a family with no sons to take after him as Emperor.
This will eventually lead the Imperial Family back to the potential succession crisis hinted at in 2006. With this in mind, it seems clear that the Imperial Household must consider the notion of allowing an Empress to reign in Japan in her own right once more and with a more permanent answer in mind.
The study released by Mainichi Shimbun has indicated that the notion definitely has support amongst the majority of Japanese citizens, with only 12% being firmly against the idea of a woman becoming Empress. Interestingly, men seem to support the idea more than women with 72% in favour vs. 65%. 12%, again, were against in both groups. Identical numbers of those in favour were also supportive of Abe’s government. This result is a drop from what it was in 2006, with 85% indicating support for female succession. After Prince Hisahito was born, it fell to 72%.
This indicates that support for the idea has declined slightly, or is at least steady, and that the Japanese are broadly pragmatic when it comes to the monarchy. It also shows that they would rather reform the Imperial Family than lose it entirely.
Support against the idea can be traced to a familiar case of traditionalism — Japan has always been rather patriarchal as a society — and a sense of national pride. Japan is the only monarchy in the world that can continually trace its monarchs back to the very first through one line. In the event of a woman becoming Empress, this is inevitably lost. A similar problem arises if female members of the Imperial Household are allowed to inherit after marrying a commoner — their children would also be in line to the throne and would trace their ancestry through their father.