Last year His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor Akihito of Japan, discretely indicated in a speech that he desired to retire from his lofty position in a rare televised address.
Citing his advancing age and declining health, he expressed his “worries that it may become difficult for [him] to carry out [his] duties as the symbol of the state” effectively. He also indicated doubts that the current traditions and protocol surrounding the Emperor and the Imperial Household were adequate at addressing the problems surrounding an ageing Emperor. While a regency could be established, it would still mean that the position of Emperor remained with someone who could no longer fulfil their duties.
This, in turn, the Emperor said, would have a severe impact on Japanese society and the Japanese people’s lives, as the death of an Emperor was always met with up to a year of national mourning.
The Japanese nation would thus suffer from “severe strain”, especially on the part of the Imperial Family left behind and having to undergo the additional stresses of succession. He posited that perhaps the time had come for there to be a discussion into ways this event may be avoided.
After much debate and discussion, the Japanese Cabinet has at last approved plans for a new bill of abdication to be passed that would allow the Emperor to pass the Chrysanthemum Throne onto his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito. This would be the first abdication of a Japanese emperor since Emperor Kokaku nearly two hundred years ago in December 1817. The passing of the bill was made necessary as the Imperial Household Act, which governs matters relating to the Emperor and his household, does not allow for abdication.
As well as the Emperor’s impending abdication, the Imperial Household Act has also come under discussion over matters relating to succession. Currently, the Japanese monarchy operates under the rules of agnatic primogeniture, which only allows for male members of the Imperial family to succeed the previous Emperor. Until 2006, there had been growing concerns of an impending succession crisis due to the lack of a male heir after Crown Prince Naruhito, and proposals were put forward to amend the Imperial Household Act to allow for female succession.
The birth of Prince Hisahito on the 6th of September 2006 put such discussion on hold for the time being.
However, problems remain. With the marriage of Princess Mako to a commoner, Kei Komuro, she is required by law to renounce her status as a member of the Imperial family. This will further reduce the size of the Imperial household, and place further strains on the remaining members as their share of Imperial duties is increased. It is expected that it will continue to decrease upon the marriages of Princess Kako and Princess Aiko, as they too will have no option but to marry commoners and relinquish their statuses. The small size of the Household also severely limits the pool of male heirs eligible to succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Difficulties in amending this growing situation arise from Japan’s pride in being able to continually trace their line of Emperors all the way back to Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first Emperor of Japan and grandson of the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu, through the male line. Allowing female succession or female family members married to commoners to remain within the order of succession opens up the possibility of that line being broken, and seeing a new male line succeed the Japanese throne.
Further, the Japanese Diet as a whole has traditionally been reluctant to engage in such divisive issues as Imperial reform and prefers to leave such matters alone where possible both to avoid controversy and out of respect to the Imperial Family.
One proposed solution was to amend the Imperial Household Law and reinstate the shinoke (Princely Houses of the Blood) and oke(Princely Houses), who formed cadet branches of the Imperial Family and were abolished in 1947. This would vastly open up the number of potential marriage candidates of Imperial lineage for female family members to marry, allowing them to retain their status and their male children to inherit.