The 16th of June, 2017 was an important date in the history of Japan’s imperial family. The special one-time law was passed on 9 June allowing the Emperor to abdicate. It was promulgated by the National Diet of Japan. All political parties, except the Liberal Party, supported the new law. The abdication of Emperor Akihito will be the first in nearly 200 years, ever since that of the 119th Emperor Koukaku in 1817 during the Edo period (1603- 1867). It will also be the first abdication that will not follow the death of an Emperor. The Imperial House Law, enacted in the Meiji era (1868-1912), made the Emperor’s tenure life-long. In a video message broadcast on 8 August 2016, Emperor Akihito had expressed his wish to step down . Hence the passage of the law was smoothly enacted, indeed in less than a year.
The abdication will mark the end of the Heisei era and the beginning of a new phase. Thereafter, Emperor Akihito, who belongs to the Heisei period (1989 to the present day) will assume the title of “Retired Emperor”, while Empress Michiko will become “Retired Empress”. Completion of the formalities will be a prolonged process. According to the special exemption law, the date of the abdication shall be decided by the Imperial House Council within three years of the promulgation and specified by a Cabinet order. The government has convened an Imperial House Council to decide on the schedule for official duties. These include the Accession Ceremony to Inherit Imperial Regalia (the transfer of the three sacred treasures) and His Majesty’s First Audience Ceremony after the Accession with the heads of the legislature, executive, judiciary, and other representatives of the people.
The objective of this onetime special exemption law is to prevent the decline of the imperial line, thereby ensuring stability. The significance of this law is that the imperial traditions have continued in Japan for 125 generations and therefore the patrilineal line of imperial succession needs to be ensured. Certain sections within the Democratic Party want the Imperial House Law to be revised in order to allow women of the Imperial Household to maintain their imperial status, and even allow the creation of an imperial family headed by a woman. However, since the existing Imperial House Law stipulates that “imperial succession shall be patrilineal”, creating a female imperial branch will not increase the number of heirs. But if the Imperial House Law is revised and the heirs of a female imperial branch are permitted to inherit the throne, it would mean accepting matrilineal succession. This is unlikely to happen as the imperial household has no plan to establish a matrilineal emperor.
Currently, Prince Hisahito, son of Prince Akishino (the Crown Prince’s younger brother), is the third in line to the throne. This line of succession will change if a matrilineal succession is recognised. In such a situation, the question of who has greater claim will have to be settled ~ Prince Hisahito or the daughter of the Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Aiko, who currently has no claim to the throne. On the matrimonial front, there could be a problem in finding a spouse for an unmarried woman who could have succeeded to the throne in a matrilineal succession. It could be a hypothetical issue, but such a situation might well emerge if matrilineal succession is recognised.
Before the end of World War II, the Imperial household had a chequered history. Before the war, the line of succession was flexible, allowing other imperial branches to be eligible in the line of succession. This policy was abolished after the war as it was feared that the imperial household would be weakened, though it was criticised at that time because it was interpreted as dilution of the bloodline. It seems some former imperial families were separated from the line about 700 years ago.
During the Meiji era (1867-1912), the four houses of Takeda, Kitashirakawa, Asaka and Higashikuni, all former imperial families, had welcomed princesses from Emperor Mutsuhito’s (Meiji era) household. Higashikuni also welcomed princesses from Emperor Hirohito’s household (Showa period 1926-1989). So, the blood ties remained strong. Since the change in the Imperial Household Law after the war, many male descendants from imperial branches had been demoted between the Meiji era and the end of World War II, and from the highest levels of the Edo period’s nobility. In view of the declining numbers of male members in the imperial line of succession and if the matrilineal succession is not acceptable, the problem could be eased if the male descendants of the imperial branches who were demoted after the war are inducted to carry out duties as temporary employees of the Imperial Household Agency. Given the reverence attached to the throne, that is unlikely to happen.
The argument to enlarge the ambit of those eligible to the imperial throne from the Imperial branches is premised on the hypothetical situation that if a princess were to marry a member of the demoted patrilineal imperial branch and subsequently bear a male heir, the succession to the throne can continue to the next generation. Those who take this position argue that princesses are facing a problem to find suitable marriage partners and therefore most imperial princesses have married members of the former nobility, or a commoner. The truism is that marriage is a personal choice and as stipulated in the Constitution is decided by an agreement between the two parties. Therefore strict adherence to marriage within the royalty or nobility could leave princesses without being married. So, the issue is complicated.
There was also a suggestion that a regent could have been chosen if the Emperor was incapable of discharging his duties either because of illness or old age. However, past precedents created more problems. For example, when Emperor Taisho ascended the throne in 1912 following his father Emperor Meiji’s death, he stopped carrying out official duties in 1919 and let his son Crown Prince Hirohito as prince regent in 1921 when he reached the age 20. When Emperor Taisho died in 1926, Crown Prince Hirohito became the Showa Emperor. The relationship between Emperor Taisho and Crown Prince Hirohito was soured by disagreements. During his reign, the Showa Emperor refused to name his son Crown Prince Akihito ~ the present Emperor ~ as Regent even when his health was deteriorating because of age. The narrative demonstrates that the establishment of a Regent is not appropriate for the stability of the imperial family. It could be more problematic in view of the declining number of successors.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is a Lok Sabha Research Fellow and can be reached at [email protected])