The government has begun considering changes to the Imperial House Law and enacting other legislation to allow the Japanese emperor to abdicate, after Emperor Akihito indicated he wished to retire in the next few years. However, it looks likely that other issues affecting the Imperial Family -- such as restoring royal status to the descendants of members who have left the family since the end of World War II in order to guarantee the succession -- will be set aside over fears they could split public opinion.
Until now, the focus of policy discussions on the Imperial Household was how to deal with the shrinking Imperial Family. The very first article of the Imperial House Law states, "The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage." As such, the next in line to the throne after Crown Prince Naruhito is his younger brother Prince Akishino, followed by Prince Akishino's only son Prince Hisahito.
The number of people in the Imperial Family will drop precipitously in the near future as female members will marry and leave the Imperial Household. If Prince Hisahito does not have a male child, then the direct male line will end, leaving no one to succeed Prince Hisahito. This is an urgent problem, but past government attempts to tackle it have resulted in sharp public divide.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is opposed to anyone from the maternal side of the Imperial Family ascending to the throne. Instead, Abe favors restoring royal status to the male descendants of 11 men who were expelled from the Imperial Family by the United States-led General Headquarters occupation administration in 1947. There are no provisions in the Imperial House Law for returning former royal family members to the Imperial fold.
In the February 2012 issue of Bungei Shunju magazine, Abe proposed "restoring former members of the Imperial Family with the enactment of a special measures law from the standpoint of recovering from the occupation regime."
The government appears to have been searching for solutions to the shrinking Imperial Family along these lines since Abe regained the premiership in December 2012. Discussion on reforms is continuing in a Cabinet Secretariat office for the consideration of Imperial House Law revisions, and according to sources close to the government, the restoration of royal status is "one among many options being examined." Hopes are high among conservative lawmakers that work can start on this option should the Abe administration stay in power for a long period after the recent House of Councillors election victory.
However, conservative scholars well versed in matters relating to the Imperial House Law have voiced concern that the question of restoring royal status will be forgotten as discussion focuses on the abdication issue.
Nevertheless, just creating an abdication mechanism would be a major change, and it is impossible to say how the public would react if debate on this expanded into and became entangled with how to guarantee the royal succession.
Katsuya Okada, leader of the largest opposition Democratic Party, said at a July 14 news conference, "I hope that a conclusion will be drawn on which many of the Japanese people will agree." On the question of matrilineal succession or women rising to the throne, Okada said it would "be difficult to arrive at a conclusion if the debate was extended to include that issue." A senior ruling party official also said that the abdication issue "will be one of the Abe administration's biggest jobs. Dealing with any other problem at the same time would be difficult."
The government began quietly considering matrilineal and female succession in the late 1990s, and in 2005 an expert committee under the administration of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi finalized a report recommending allowing matrilineal and female succession. However, the conservative lobby group Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) and lawmakers belonging to the organization quickly mobilized against the report, stating that permitting succession along the female line "would sever the history of the Imperial Household's unbroken line of patrilineal succession." Prince Hisahito was born in September 2006. The first Abe administration came to power shortly after, and shelved discussion on the expert committee report.
In 2012, the government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda focused discussion on continuing royal status for female members of the Imperial Household even after marriage. This time, too, conservatives protested, warning, "If, in the future, the right of succession was granted to the children of female members of the Imperial Family, we would end up with matrilineal succession."