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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Explained: Why Japan’s succession laws are now in focus again

There has been a long standing debate concerning Japan's succession laws and over the years it has developed into a political issue.

By: Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: December 6, 2020 9:14:09 am
Japan, Japan succession laws, Japan Princess Mako wedding, Princess Majo Komura Kei wedding, Japan news, Indian ExpressIn this photo provided by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Crown Prince Akishino, center, poses for a photograph with his wife Crown Princess Kiko, second right, and their children, Princess Mako, left, Princess Kako and Prince Hisahito at their residence in Tokyo on Nov. 14, 2020. (Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)

It was three ago that Japan’s Imperial Household Agency announced the informal engagement of Princess Mako to her university classmate and commoner Komuro Kei. On November 30, the princess’s father and Japan’s Crown Prince Fumihito said he “approves” of his daughter’s plans to marry Komuro, according to news reports. But it is unclear when the ceremonies will take place.

After the wedding was postponed for an entire gamut of reasons, it brought back attention on a long-standing debate on the royal family’s succession laws and whether women in Japan’s royal family should be allowed to take a more prominent role.

Why was the wedding delayed?

The princess and her fiance have faced a series of setbacks in the run-up to their wedding. In September 2017, the Imperial Household Agency made the first announcement indicating that the wedding would occur in the Autumn of 2018. However, not long after the engagement was announced, the Agency said the wedding would be postponed, with initial reports suggesting that the delays were linked to Komuro’s mother’s financial problems involving an unpaid loan she was expected to return to her ex-fiance running up to ¥4 million (approximately $40,000).

At that time, the couple had issued a statement saying: “We had acted too hastily in many respects. We have reached the decision that it would be more appropriate to take more ample time to make the necessary preparations.”

Japan, Japan succession laws, Japan Princess Mako wedding, Princess Majo Komura Kei wedding, Japan news, Indian Express Japan’s Crown Prince Akishino, center, talks with his wife Crown Princess Kiko, second right, and their children, Princess Mako, left, Princess Kako and Prince Hisahito at their residence in Tokyo on Nov. 14, 2020. (Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)

What has happened since then?

In the midst of this controversy, in 2018, Komuru travelled to the United States and enrolled in a three-year law degree. A few months later, in January 2019 Komuru released a statement saying the unpaid loan had been “resolved”, but his mother’s ex fiance denied that this had happened.

Japan’s public, however, remained unconvinced by Kumoro’s statement and people questioned the appropriateness of his engagement with the princess.

In March 2019, the princess’s younger sister Princess Kako graduated from university and in a statement referred to her sister’s nuptials. A Nippon article quoted her: “When it comes to marriage, I think the feelings of the people involved are what is important. I hope that my older sister’s wishes as an individual will be fulfilled.” The princess’s statements were unusual for their forthrightness and were subjected to criticism in Japan, whose public was unaccustomed to hearing members of the royal family speak this openly about a subject that had earlier generated controversy.

In the midst of all of this, Princess Kako’s uncle Prince Naruhito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, becoming the Emperor of Japan and ushered the Reiwa era in the Japanese calendar.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito, right, and Crown Prince Naruhito wave to well-wishers from a bullet-proofed balcony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (AP Photo: Eugene Hoshiko)

In November 2019, the princess’s father indicated that although the wedding hadn’t been cancelled, the royal family had not been in touch with the Komuros, leading to speculation in Japan that perhaps all was not well and that the royal family hadn’t been satisfied with Komuro’s explanation for his mother’s debt. There may be a little more to the story: the princess and Komuro wish to marry, but he may not have impressed her family with his mishandling of his mother’s financial situation, his credentials and his future prospects.

However, given the princess’s apparent determination to go ahead with the wedding, her father seems to have relented. “The constitution says marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes. If that is what they really want, then I think that is something I need to respect as a parent,” Kyodo News quoted Crown Prince Fumihito saying. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

How are royal succession laws involved here?

It isn’t only a matter of Komuro’s financial situation. According to the Imperial Household Law in Japan, when women born in the royal family marry, they become private citizens and receive a one-time payment of approximately ¥100 million and lose all other privileges that they enjoyed in the imperial household.

The rule would apply to Princess Mako as well. According to the BBC, prior to World War II, Japan’s imperial household would arrange marriages with distant cousins or with members of aristocratic families in the country. That changed post World War II with the imposition of the constitution formed by the US, that was formed to “dismantle the aristocracy and dissolve minor branches of the royal family.” This has compelled princesses born in Japan’s royal family to marry commoners.

There has been a long standing debate concerning Japan’s succession laws and over the years it has developed into a political issue. The debate first surfaced in 2006 with a survey conducted by one of Japan’s leading dailies, Asahi Shimbun, that asked if a revision should be conducted of the Imperial Household Law to allow a woman to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Reports suggested that a large percentage of people had responded positively and then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had expressed strong support from the revision, pledging to present a bill to the parliament.

Conservative lawmakers and even male members of the royal family opposed the proposed bill. The Japanese royal family is one of the world’s oldest monarchies and in its 2,680-year history, only eight women have ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne and none in modern times. In 2005, a government panel recommended exploring the possibility of making way for women to ascend the throne, in part because then sons of then monarch Emperor Akihito’s two sons, Crown Prince Naruhito and his younger brother Fumihito, did not have sons.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito, flanked by Crown Prince Naruhito, delivers a speech during a ritual called Taiirei-Seiden-no-gi, a ceremony for the Emperor’s abdication, at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan April 30, 2019. (Japan Pool/Pool via Reuters)

That changed in 2006 when Prince Fumihito’s wife Princess Kiko, gave birth to a baby boy in September that year. The birth of a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne subsided the discussion for having women take the throne and the proposed bill was also withdrawn.

The controversy has involved discussions on the roles of women in the royal family and scruinity of the lives of the women who are born into the family and those of the lives of women who marry into the family.

Historians and academics have stated that it is about time that the status of women and their roles in Japan’s royal family are seriously looked at, even if they are unwilling to consider the possibility, because otherwise, the family may face extinction with their focus on continuity through males. In August this year, Kono Taro, former Defense Minister of Japan, had suggested that matrilineal emperors, men whose fathers are not descendants of emperors of Japan, should be considered to ascend the throne.

At present, only male members with patrilineal connections can ascend to the throne.

“I think it is possible that Imperial princesses (children or grandchildren of an emperor), including Princess Aiko (the daughter of Emperor Naruhito), could be accepted as the next emperor,” The Mainichi newspaper quoted Kono saying. “Are there really any women who would choose to join the (next generation) Imperial Family when they see Empress Masako and Crown Princess Kiko (wife of Crown Prince Akishino)? There will be tremendous pressure to give birth to a boy,” Kono had said.

With Prince Hisahito the only male member in his generation, Kono had questioned what would happen in the eventuality of no males being born in any given generation. There has also been a discussion concerning the possibility of reinstating members of branches of the Imperial household that had been dissolved by the US post World War II, to preserve the current succession laws but that is complex. “There will be a need to have discussions whether the people of Japan will truly accept reinstating those who were separated from the Imperial Family some 600 years ago,” Kono had explained.

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