Imperial succession has remained an imperfect issue in the historical narrative of nations that have such systems. The debate on which is the perfect system and how to codify them continues. There has never been any definite answer. The terminology to designate the system as imperial, monarchical, kings and queens and so on may differ, but there is some common thread in all such systems on the succession debate.
Against this background, Japan’s case is special. There are kings, monarchs, dictators in some countries, but Japan is the only country in the world where there is an Emperor, the current Emperor being the 125th one in succession. After World War II, Emperor Hirohito, posthumously called as Showa, renounced his divine status and became the symbol of the nation under a democracy.
There are some critical challenges that Japan’s imperial system will have to cope with in the future. In a television pre-recorded broadcast in August 2016, the current Emperor Akihito, aged 83, expressed his wish to abdicate as he was less confident of discharging his national duties because of his age. In the current Imperial House Law, there is no provision for abdication; an Emperor can only die before the Crown Prince is enthroned as the next Emperor.
The issue of succession has emerged as a challenge to the nation’s imperial system because of two reasons. One, the number of successors to the throne currently is limited to three: Crown Prince Naruhito, his younger brother Prince Akishino and Akishino’s son, Prince Hisahito who is 10 years of age.
Once Crown Prince Naruhito becomes the Emperor upon his father’s abdication, the line of succession shall remain limited to only two. Second, the succession to the imperial throne has remained patrilineal, which means female members are ineligible to occupy the throne. In order to widen the scope and increase the number in the line of succession, laws could be amended by including women members, making them eligible in the line of succession and thus making the system both patrilineal and matrilineal.
Changing the Imperial House Law is not easy. The conservative government of Abe Shinzo seems to be against this. There could be public disapproval as well. In the present set-up, a female member loses her imperial status if married to a commoner and must leave the Imperial house. This has been the case and shall remain so in future. The latest case is that of Princess Mako, Prince Akishino’s eldest daughter, who has already chosen her soul mate, Kei Komuro. The Imperial Household Agency announced that the informal engagement ceremony shall be conducted on 8 July. The official engagement shall be announced later when a separate betrothal rite, called nosai no gi is organised at a formal ceremony.
After Mako’s engagement, the total number of the imperial family will come down to 18, including the current Emperor Akihito. Under the current system, what the imperial family wants is immaterial. Any expression by the Emperor regarding his status and that of his relations is inherently political in nature. According to the Constitution, the symbolic head of the country is supposed to be above politics, or at least outside of it. So, there has to be a political decision on whether to make women eligible to be in the line of succession.
Even Emperor Akihito’s wish to step down went through intense and prolonged political debate inside and outside of the Diet before a one-time abdication has been accepted. Whether this would set the precedent for the future if another such situation arises would remain in the realm of the unknowns.
The Japanese media is restrained to disclose any information regarding the Imperial family unless they are authorised by the Imperial Household Agency and therefore expected to follow strict protocol. It is the Imperial Household Agency which controls all interactions with the palace. The life of the imperial family is like caged prisoners, where the Emperor enjoys no real freedom and is expected to sit behind the curtain and pray for the nation. Simply put, he just remains literally as the symbol of the nation. The current Heisei era started in January 1989 when Emperor Akihito assumed the Imperial Throne upon the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito. When the current Crown Prince Naruhito is enthroned, possibly in 2018 as planned, a new era shall start. The government has to decide the name of the new era. The retired Emperor can then watch the next era in peace.
It would be the first abdication of the present Emperor Akihito in nearly 200 years, since that of the 119th Emperor Koukaku in 1817 during the Edo period (1603-1867). It will also be the first abdication not due to the demise of an Emperor since the previous Imperial House Law, enacted in the Meiji era (1868-1912), made the position of Emperor a lifetime tenure.
Changing the name of the era will have a wide-ranging effect on society, including modifications of computer systems so that banks, registration of births and deaths, driving licence etc are not too inconvenienced. In order to avoid such a possible situation, it would be necessary for the government to make the announcement of the new era’s name ahead of the abdication date. The Emperor upon abdication shall assume the name of joko or retired Emperor and all acts of the Emperor performed as the symbol of the state will be transferred altogether to the new Emperor.
As such, any confusion on “duality of symbol and authority” can be prevented between the new Emperor and a joko.
The government is also expected to define the activities of the joko and pass a new special law for establishing new posts in the Imperial Household Agency, such as joko-shoku, who would be in charge of the affairs of the joko and jokogo, the title to be given to the Empress after the Emperor’s abdication.
We need to wait and see what new changes are made in the coming months to keep the imperial system running and that the institution’s symbolism is maintained.
(The writer is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the opinion of either the ICCR or the Government of India. He may be reached at [email protected])