Resolving the Issue of Imperial Lineage

The wedding of Japanese Princess Ayako to the commoner Kei Moriya seals her departure from the Imperial Family. Despite the auspicious occasion, many in Japan are concerned about maintaining the imperial lineage.

Marriage of a Princess

Princess Ayako is the third and youngest daughter of the late Prince Takamado, a cousin of Emperor Akihito.

Some 30 family members on both sides attended the wedding on Monday morning. Princess Ayako wore traditional clothing for the Shinto ceremony.

A priest said a ritual prayer. The Princess and Moriya exchanged nuptial cups and wedding rings and then recited their vows.
Notification of the marriage was submitted to the municipal office the same day.

The Imperial Family Today

The Imperial Family headed by Emperor Akihito consists of 18 people, 13 of them women. Five of the 6 unmarried princesses are now of marriageable age.

Imperial Household Law requires that women marrying outside the family abandon their status. Last year, the household announced the planned engagement to a commoner of one of the Emperor's granddaughters, Princess Mako.

The five men in the Imperial Family are Emperor Akihito, his brother Prince Hitachi, the Emperor's son, Crown Prince Naruhito, his second son Prince Akishino, and Prince Akishino's son Prince Hisahito.

When Crown Prince Naruhito becomes emperor next year, his brother, Prince Akishino, will be first in line to the throne and Prince Hisahito will be second.

The current Imperial Household Law was enacted in 1947. The previous law passed in the Meiji era required that the heir to the throne be male.

There have been eight female emperors, including Empress Suiko (592-628) and Empress Gosakuramachi (1762-1770). However, only descendants of male emperors could ascend the throne.

Past Debates

There have been discussions in the government and the Diet about whether a woman can occupy the throne.

When Princess Aiko was born to the Crown Prince in 2001, some executive members of both the ruling and opposition parties said a woman should be allowed to assume the throne for the sake of gender equality.

Three years later, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed a panel of experts to examine the issue of succession. They decided that women and their children should be allowed to inherit the throne, and that the Emperor's first-born should take the throne regardless of gender.

An NHK poll in 2005 showed 82 percent of respondents would welcome a woman on the throne, with 9 percent opposed. Furthermore, 71 percent said they supported the children of a female emperor and male commoner inheriting the throne, with 15 percent opposed.

Koizumi attempted to revise the Imperial Household Law the following year, but several lawmakers, mainly in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, demanded more time to discuss the matter.
News that the wife of the Crown Prince's brother, Prince Akishino, was pregnant, encouraged these lawmakers. Then, revision of the law was postponed after the birth of a son, Prince Hisahito, the first male heir born to the Imperial Family in 40 years.

The next time the matter was discussed was in 2011.
The government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reviewed the system of Imperial succession with a view to creating a system of imperial households headed by women.

The government said the issue had been raised by the head of the Imperial Household Agency, who noted that many of the female members were approaching marriageable age and soon might be concluding their Imperial duties. If female members were allowed to retain their status after marriage as leaders of their household, this could pave the way for their possible succession.

The government sought public input on the question, but discussion faded after the LDP was returned to power at the end of 2012.

Debate arose again in the Diet in 2016 on the matter of Emperor Akihito's desire to retire and pass on the throne to his son. Some of the opposition parties drafted a resolution urging the government to ensure a stable succession, as well as establish female branches of the Imperial Family, and it was passed the Diet.

However, many conservatives supporting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continue to insist on male succession on grounds of tradition and culture. Abe himself opposed establishing female imperial households in an article he wrote for a monthly magazine in 2012 when the LDP was in opposition.

The abdication next year of Emperor Akihito is a major event. It is the first imperial succession of this nature in 200 years. The government is accelerating preparations for this, but slowing down resolution to the question of maintaining the Imperial Family line.