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Asian RoyalsFeaturesHistoryJapanState & Ceremonial

The monarch’s role in Japan

Historically, Japan is one of the oldest empires in the world that is still in existence today. However, the role of the Emperor has tended to fluctuate a lot within the millennia of history since the creation of the first shogunate. 

In some periods, the Emperor only had a symbolic role, while in others, all power to rule over the country was in his hands. And I can use the masculine pronoun without fear since Japanese Imperial Law to this day only accepts male descendants of the Emperor in the succession line, with females being automatically excluded. 

This has created a situation that, at the moment, is less than ideal; the current Emperor, Naruhito, only has one daughter, so in the event of his death, the throne will be occupied by his younger brother, Crown Prince Fumihito, and then the latter’s son, 16-year-old Prince Hisahito. 

If a male descendent were to marry a non-royal, that would be accepted; this has happened in the case of the current Empress, who was born into a family of diplomats but not of noble descent. However, if a female royal chooses to marry a commoner, they are automatically excluded from the Imperial Family. This was the case for Crown Prince Fumihito’s oldest daughter, Mako Komuro, who now lives in New York as a regular citizen. 

This succession law has been at the centre of several debates since 2001, when, more than eight years after their marriage, the current Imperial Couple welcomed a daughter. The cabinet of experts that was called upon to consult on the matter never produced a definitive answer. The issue became less pressing when Prince Fumitiho and Princess Kiko welcomed a boy as their third child, thus ensuring a successor for the throne. 

The current Emperor made headlines at the time, directly linking the unbearable pressure to produce a male heir to his wife’s illness, seemingly implying the Imperial Household Agency was responsible; he had just broken the unspoken rule of not directly making any public statements that could even vaguely resemble political opinions. 

The life of all members of the Japanese Imperial Family, up to and including the Emperor, is strictly regulated by the omnipresent Imperial Household Agency; they control the agendas and scheduling of engagements, they release information to the media and the public, and they manage the lives that cross within the walls of the Imperial Palace. 

Japan was one of the countries that was part of the Axis alliance that lost World War II; however, it was also the theatre of the only use of nuclear weapons in war. For that reason, when they set up to rebuild their country, the Japanese decided they didn’t want armed forces. To this day, Japan is only armed with a Self-Defense Force, albeit one that is growing more and more, as the world watches China’s increasingly aggressive stance with concern. 

For that reason, as well as the fact that Hirohito was one of the reasons why the war ended the way it did for the country, the Japanese Emperor is not the head of the armed forces; in the 1947 constitution, written while the country was still trying to grapple with the devastation of World War II, this and many other powers were explicitly set in the hands of Parliament or the Prime Minister. 

In short, the current role of the Emperor is exclusively a symbolic one. Yes, he appoints the new Prime Ministers and the Chiefs of the Supreme Court of Justice (article 6); he promulgates laws, convenes the Diet (Parliament) and proclaims general elections, he swears in new ministers and receives new ambassadors, and he ratifies international and diplomatic treaties (article 7). All of these functions, however, are enacted strictly under the advice of the Cabinet, the political organ that functions as an advisory panel for the sovereign. 

The Emperor’s ceremonial duties include the awarding of honours, as well as the ceremonies that open ordinary and extraordinary sessions of the Diet via the Throne Speech. 

A slow process has been set in motion to seek change in the structure constituting the Imperial Family, especially when it comes to the role that female royals play in the daily life of the institution, and it remains to see where this change is set to take the country. 

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