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Editorial: Japan gov't can't stay divided on imperial succession issue forever

A Japanese government panel has launched discussions on how to secure stable succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne. But while the panel has heard the opinions of experts, members are divided over whether to permit reigning empresses and emperors of matrilineal descent, and those on either side have failed to converge.

    The discussions began after being stipulated four years ago in an additional resolution to legislation allowing former Emperor Akihito to abdicate. The resolution urged the government to "swiftly consider" measures for realizing a stable imperial succession after the legislation came into force.

    Under the current system, only male members of the Imperial Family with an emperor on their father's side are permitted to inherit the throne. This leaves just two qualified males in the Imperial Family who are younger than Emperor Naruhito: the Emperor's younger brother, Crown Prince Akishino (Fumihito); and Prince Akishino's 14-year-old son, Prince Hisahito.

    The reason that discussions have not proceeded in spite of this, is that there is a large gap between experts when it comes to their image of the Emperor. Conservatives say that the nature of the Emperor is to govern imperial rites, and they place importance on the tradition of the chief ritualist being succeeded through the male line.

    But Article 1 of the current Constitution of Japan defines the Emperor as the "symbol of the State." There are no stipulations in the Constitution on the Emperor's public activities, such as visiting disaster-hit and regional areas, but in fulfilling his role as a symbol, such activities are important.

    Two years ago, during the Taiirei-Seiden-no-Gi imperial abdication ceremony, Emperor Emeritus Akihito said, "I am sincerely grateful to the people who received me as a symbol and supported me." The current Emperor Naruhito has inherited this stance, deepening exchange with the public.

    The coronavirus crisis has restricted contact between people, and has also affected the activities of the Emperor in his official capacity. He has accordingly made use of the internet and continued his public duties in a way that matches these times.

    Earlier this year, the visit of the general public to the Imperial Palace grounds for the New Year's celebration was canceled due to COVID-19, but Emperor Naruhito released a video message together with Empress Masako, presenting a new style of exchange with the people.

    Fifteen years have already passed since the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi submitted a report in 2005 calling to allow reigning empresses and emperors of matrilineal descent. In public opinion polls, around 70% have supported reigning empresses, but over the period to date, the Liberal Democratic Party-led administration has avoided discussion on the issue.

    As female members of the Imperial Family leave the Imperial Household upon marriage, it is possible that the household could be left with no other members of the same generation of Prince Hisahito. And if the number of Imperial Family members who can carry out public duties decreases, there will be fewer opportunities for the public to interact with the Imperial Household.

    The image of the Emperor as a symbol of the state is something that should be built up together with the people of Japan. And in order for this to be passed on in the future, open discussion with the public is required.

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