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Japan gov't remains cautious about opening way for maternal-line emperors

Japanese Crown Prince Fumihito, right, followed by Crown Princess Kiko and other members of the imperial family, head to the site of a ritual at the Imperial Palace Sanctuaries in Tokyo on Oct. 22, 2019, prior to the proclamation of Emperor Naruhito's enthronement at another location in the palace later in the day. (Pool photo, Kyodo)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government will unlikely go as far as considering opening the way for female members of the Imperial Family and male members in the female line to ascend to the throne as it resumes discussions on how to ensure stable Imperial succession.

This is because conservatives within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are opposed to the idea, which they say runs counter to tradition. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose support base is conservatives, may limit its reform of the Imperial succession system to merely countermeasures against a decrease in the number of Imperial Family members as the government is set to reopen discussions after the series of ceremonies relating to Emperor Naruhito's enthronement ends this autumn.

A Diet resolution attached to the Special Measures Law on the Imperial House Law calls for swift consideration of the possibility of allowing for an Imperial Family branch headed by female members and other measures to ensure stable succession of the Imperial Throne. The law, which was enacted in June 2017, allowed then Emperor Akihito to abdicate.

Instead of setting up a panel of experts on the issue, the resolution assumes that the executive branch of the government will interview experts individually on their opinions.

The Imperial House Law stipulates that "the Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage." Currently, three members of the Imperial Family are qualified to succeed the throne. Crown Prince Akishino, 53, who is the younger brother of Emperor Naruhito, is first in line to the throne. His sole son, 13-year-old Prince Hisahito, is the only Imperial Family member who is younger than the Crown Prince and qualified to accede to the throne.

A key point of contention is whether to allow female members of the Imperial Household and male members in the female line, whose father-side lineage is not linked to an emperor, to succeed the throne.

In 2005, a panel of experts set up by the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi compiled a report proposing that female members and male members in the female line be allowed to ascend to the throne. However, conservatives voiced stiff opposition to the proposal on the grounds that it could destroy the tradition of Imperial succession by male members in the male line. When Prince Hisahito was born in September 2006 as the first male Imperial Family member to be born in 40 years, the first Abe Cabinet that was launched in the same month shelved the government's consideration of allowing female members and male members in the female line to succeed the throne.

The report issued by the Koizumi Cabinet's panel also recommended that the eldest offspring of the emperor be prioritized in succession. Therefore, if recommendations by the report were to be fully put into practice, Princess Aiko, 17, the sole child of Emperor Naruhito, would be first in line to the throne. If full-scale debate on the issue were to be held, public opinion could be split into those in favor of allowing Prince Hisahito and Princess Aiko to succeed to the throne.

A senior official of the prime minister's office presented a cautious view on the matter, saying, "We should only clarify options in preparation for Prince Hisahito's future enthronement." However, if the current system remains as it is, Imperial succession will remain unstable as Prince Hisahito and his future spouse could come under pressure to have sons.

In 2012, the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also moved to consider opening the way for female members of the Imperial Family to set up one-off branches of the Imperial household after they marry commoners. Conservatives expressed opposition to the proposal, pointing out that if female members of the Imperial Family who set up their own branches have children, it could lead to allowing Imperial Households members in the female line to accede to the throne. The second Abe Cabinet did not put the issue on the table.

Conservatives, on the other hand, insist that men who are former Imperial Family members in the male line, who left the Imperial Family after World War II, regain membership in the Imperial Household. This has also raised questions. As a high-ranking official of the prime minister's office put it, "In modern society, it's difficult for people who left the Imperial Household some 70 years ago to be accepted into the Imperial Family again."

Prime Minister Abe only reiterated his longstanding position on the issue as he spoke at a House of Councillors plenary session on Oct. 8. "We'll carefully and cautiously consider the matter while bearing in mind the weight of tradition of maintaining succession by those in the male line since ancient times," he said.

The government apparently intends to maintain the current system until Prince Hisahito succeeds the throne, while considering allowing female members of the Imperial Family to perform official duties after their marriage in order to lessen the burden of such duties on Imperial Family members.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department)

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