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Official titles converge on Prince Akishino as Imperial Family shrinks

Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko are seen at the 27th Global Environment Award ceremony at the Meiji Kinenkan venue in Tokyo's Minato Ward on April 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The list of Prince Akishino's activities on the Imperial Household Agency website is expansive, ranging from ceremonies to mark the formation of Japan's Olympic delegation for the Pyeongchang Winter Games and to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, to events for organizations in which he serves as honorary president and university lectures.

On April 9 this year, he attended the 27th Global Environment Award ceremony at the Meiji Kinenkan venue in Tokyo's Minato Ward along with his wife, Princess Kiko, and engaged in informal discussion with recipients. Prince Akishino serves as president emeritus of WWF Japan, which provides special cooperation for this prize. In all, the prince is honorary president of 13 organizations, which requires him to pay visits to various areas. Among them are the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, whose work overlaps with his own field of research, and the Saiseikai Imperial Gift Foundation, Inc., a social welfare organization over which members of the Imperial Family have successively presided.

In contrast, Crown Prince Naruhito holds the single title of honorary vice-president of the Japanese Red Cross Society. Emperor Akihito currently does not hold any official positions at such organizations.

Commenting on why such activities have fallen on the shoulders of Prince Akishino, an official from the Imperial Household Agency told the Mainichi Shimbun, "When it comes to the positions of Emperor and Crown Prince, it is difficult to take on official positions simply from the perspective of fairness, so branches of the Imperial Family that are in a comparatively free position have come to take them on."

When Emperor Akihito abdicates, Prince Akishino will assume the title of "Koshi," or Imperial heir, putting him first in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Since he is not the son of the next Emperor, he will not take on the title of "Kotaishi" (crown prince), but will receive the treatment of a crown prince. Sources close to the Imperial Household Agency say that the agency is considering translating "koshi" in English as "Crown Prince" to make it clear both in Japan and abroad that Prince Akishino will be the next Emperor.

In line with the change of positions, Prince Akishino will take over the role of visiting areas across Japan that Crown Prince Naruhito previously inherited from Emperor Akihito. The agency is also considering having Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko take over Imperial court rituals performed by Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako. The problem is there is no obvious figure to take over the public duties and positions that Prince Akishino has fulfilled for years.

A contributing factor is the decline in the number of Imperial Family members. Prince Akishino passed on the role of honorary chairperson of the Japan Tennis Association to his daughter Princess Mako, but under the current Imperial system, both her and her younger sister Princess Kako will leave the Imperial Family upon marriage, meaning the same problem will arise in the future.

Prince Akishino's son Prince Hisahito, now aged 11, cannot perform any full-scale official duties until he comes of age, and there are no other young male members of the Imperial Family to take them on.

To begin with, there has been a large gap in support systems, both financially and in the number of workers, between the family of Prince Akishino, and the Emperor and Empress and the family of the Crown Prince. The Imperial Household Agency aims to increase Imperial Family payments, which cover living expenses, and provide more workers, but it is also starting to consider decreasing the frequency of Prince Akishino's attendance at events and other such measures, on the grounds that the burden would be too great for him if his official duties were not reduced.

At a news conference in November last year, Prince Akishino was asked about the sharing of official duties, and he replied, "The situation is such that there is no place for me to turn over the things I am doing now. I would like to discuss this in degrees with His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince."

An official at the Imperial Household Agency commented, "It's impossible for him alone to take on all of the things that had been done by two people, alongside the Crown Prince. After the change of positions, we want to arrange things so we can have him perform his duties without asking too much of him."

However, the basic question of how the Imperial Family will face a decline in the number of its members remains to be addressed.

(This is part four of a five-part series)

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