It’s been 248 years since the last woman reigned as Empress of Japan, and almost just as long since an emperor resigned from the Imperial Throne.
With current emperor Akihito breaking the mold by abdicating next month, is it possible that we will see a female ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne soon, too?
According to an article published by The Japan Times on March 29, internal documents and inside sources revealed that this is a real possibility that the Japanese government has been considering since 1997.
At the time, they were feeling pressure due to the fact that Emperor Akihito had no grandson.
Under the current Imperial House Law, only male heirs with emperors on their father’s side can succeed the throne. This style of succession was borrowed from the Prussian model and adopted after the Meiji Revolution, a time marked by western influence on Japan’s socio-political systems.
In order to avoid a succession crisis in the future, from 2001 to 2006, the Japanese government under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — a member of the conservative LDP political party — pushed to change this law.
However, the plans dwindled down after the birth of Prince Hisahito, the first male heir born to the Imperial Family in 41 years. Cue one big, communal sigh of relief on behalf of the Japanese government and Imperial Family, who no longer had to seriously consider the seemingly preposterous idea of a woman succeeding the throne.
Yet even now in 2019, only five of the 18 family members are men: Emperor Akihito, Crown Prince Naruhito, Prince Akishino, Prince Hisahito, and Prince Hitachi. The fear of a succession crisis was avoided, but only by a thread. The emperor (or empress) has no political power in Japan, but is widely admired and respected by Japanese people.
When it comes to the seemingly obvious choice of letting one of the other 13 female members of the Imperial Family succeed the throne, the Japanese public is widely on board. According to an opinion poll of 3,000 adult men and women by Kyodo News last year, 83 percent are in favor of having an empress.
However, current prime minister Shinzo Abe — also from the LDP party — has repeatedly shown reluctance to change the system of male succession, instead suggesting other ways to stabilize imperial succession like adoption. Abe is considered to be much more conservative than Koizumi was, and in a Diet committee he said, “Because this is an extremely important issue related to the foundation of the nation, we have to give careful consideration to the matter.”
With the current conservative government under Abe, it may take nothing short of a succession crisis to upset the gender equality issue in Japan enough for them to change the law so that a female can ascend the throne.
But under a different, less conservative government, we might see necessary changes to the law that pave the way for us to see the first Empress of Japan in over 200 years. Elections are scheduled on or before October 2021, and as other members of Abe’s party have shown support for changing the Imperial House Law in the past, it’s a possibility that we might see a change in the new era.