Japan’s Succession Crisis: No Male Heirs Means Ancient Monarchy May Soon Disappear!
The Japanese monarchy is the oldest continuous monarchy in the world, but it faces a clear succession crisis in the 21st century. Imperial descendance and inheritance is only passed through male heirs, which is now proving to be a bit of a problem. AFP reports that the Japanese first family is now facing extinction due to a shortage of eligible emperors. The current emperor, Naruhito, 61 years of age, will be replaced by his nephew Prince Hisahito (15) instead of his own daughter, Princess Aiko (20).
Emperor Naruhito, 61 years of age and his wife Empress Masako and their only child Princess Aiko (right). (Imperial Household Agency / CC BY 4.0)
Is Japan’s Succession Crisis Due to an Outdated System?
Almost all public opinion polls indicate overwhelming public support for a female heir, but the conservative consensus amongst policy and law makers remains the status quo. The preferred male succession system of the current Japanese imperial family, a perfectly patriarchal family, means that any change in status quo is unlikely in the near future, reports The Guardian.
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The current system is outdated and does not represent the reforms that have occurred in Japanese society over its rich history. It is "not at all based on the current family system in Japan or ideas about gender equality. I think the public is wondering what's wrong with Princess Aiko succeeding the throne," said Makoto Okawa, a history professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, to AFP. His specialized area of study is the history of the Japanese imperial system.
Okawa also added that the logic and reason of not allowing the 20-year-old Princess Aiko to ascend the throne because of her 15-year-old male cousin, does not stand any ground, particularly in this day and age.
Members of the Imperial Family show themselves to the general public in May 2019 in Tokyo. (江戸村のとくぞう / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Government Panel Appointed to Offer Solutions to the Vacuum
A special government panel has proposed two solutions for the current succession crisis. They suggest that, first, royal women should be allowed to keep their title and duties even when they marry outside the imperial family. As per the current status quo, women marrying outside the family must leave the family.
Second, men from 11 direct and indirect branches of the royal family that were abolished in post-war reforms should be allowed to join the family tree and direct line through adoption. It also added that the status quo should remain until Prince Hisahito becomes the next emperor.
However, the panel has not reached full consensus as per a Guardian report. The panel has warned that if empresses don’t stop leaving the family, only Hirohito will be left as the eligible heir. The current Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, has officially termed this as an issue that affects the very foundation of Japan. However, Japanese political experts say he is unlikely to argue with the traditional conservative voices in his own party.
A lot of blame has been attached to Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who had eight years in office but could not secure the imperial family’s future during his tenure. Abe stated on record that no changes were required, legal or otherwise for the next 40 years, and that a divine wind would one day come that would help settle this issue.
The moat around Tokyo Imperial Palace keeps the imperial family safe as they wrestle with the issue of who is next! (SeanPavonePhoto / Adobe Stock)
The History of the Royal Family in Japan
The Japanese imperial family are said to have descended from the Shinto gods. The monarchy has been in existence since 660 BC, and material evidence for its reign begins from somewhere around 300 AD, from the time of Emperor Kinmei, reports the National Geographic. At various points in its long history, the Japanese emperor was seen as a manifestation of the divine and was worshipped as an “almost God.”
For a period of 800 odd years between the 10th and 19th centuries AD, Japan’s feudal shogunate system existed wherein the samurai warrior military class and their shoguns had control and power over Japanese society. This system ended with the Meiji restoration and re-centralization of imperial power to Tokyo in 1868.
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Japan’s dark involvement in World War II, along with Germany and Italy, created new winds of change when the war ended. In Japan the traditional aristocracy was abolished in law and practice. Emperor Hirohito, in whose name the war was fought, renounced any connection to divinity and officially supported the new constitution. After the war, the role of the Imperial House of Japan was reduced to a symbolic one, with no real executive or political power. But they continue to be a powerful living symbol in the public imagination.
The current succession crisis in the Japanese imperial monarchy has been exacerbated by dated ideas of male succession. A growing number of highly competent princesses have married so-called “commoners,” adding to the succession crisis vacuum.
For now, Japan is stuck between abolishing a dated patriarchal familial system and revising its system of government to reflect modern democratic trends.
Top image: Imperial succession in Japan is up in the air as the choices get more complicated: could be a woman or a young man. Japanese Emperor Naruhito at his enthronement ceremony in Kyoto, October 2019. Source: Imperial Household Agency / CC BY 4.0
By Sahir Pandey
AFP. 2021. Japan faces royal dilemma as ancient monarchy shrinks. Available at: https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20211230-japan-faces-royal-dilemma-as-ancient-monarchy-shrinks
Blakemore, E. 2021. Learn about the history—and future—of the Japanese monarchy. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/japanese-monarchy
McCurry, J. 2021. Heir of desperation as Japan wrestles with looming royal succession crisis. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/15/heir-of-desperation-as-japan-wrestles-with-looming-royal-succession-crisis