In passing legislation to allow Emperor Akihito to leave his throne, Japan’s parliament acted in response to the emperor’s own wishes. Last August, Akihito made a rare televised address to the nation, saying his health problems and advancing age would make it hard for him to carry out his official duties as Japan’s leader “with my whole being as I have done until now.”
Emperor Akihito is beloved in Japan, and polls at the time showed a large majority of Japanese citizens supported his desire to step aside. Since taking the throne in 1989, the emperor has undergone cancer treatment and a heart bypass operation. Though Japan’s constitution bars the emperor from making any political statements, his televised statement was widely seen as a plea to the government to reform the Imperial Household Law. Passed in 1947, the law makes no provision for a monarch to abdicate; it also excludes all female members of the royal family from the line of succession.
The law passed this week is a one-off, allowing Akihito—and only Akihito—to resign, but it does include a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to figure out how to ensure the future stability of the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. As reported in the Guardian, Japanese media outlets say Akihito is expected to step down at the end of 2018, after which his eldest son, 57-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, will become the 126th Japanese emperor. But the question remains—what happens after that?
Japan is one of the few monarchies in the world that does not allow women to reign. Recently, however, the nation’s imperial line has experienced a notable shortage of male heirs. The four rightful heirs to the Chrysanthemum Throne include Naruhito; his younger brother Akishino; Akishino’s 10-year-old son, Prince Hisahito; and the reigning emperor’s 81-year-old brother, Prince Masahito.
Hisahito’s birth, in 2006, put a stop to the last big debate over changing the law to include women in the line of succession. Though polls at the time suggested a vast majority of voters supported the proposed reform, conservatives (including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) were all too happy to drop the issue after the emperor’s first grandson was born.
Akihito’s planned abdication, as well as the engagement of his eldest granddaughter, Princess Mako, to a commoner, has reignited that debate. Mako, Akishino’s eldest daughter, will lose her royal status after marriage, leaving only 18 remaining members of the royal family; 13 of those are female. Under the current law, if Prince Hisahito’s future wife does not give birth to a son, the imperial bloodline would end for good.
Women have occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne in the past—eight, in fact—but not in modern times. According to a report earlier this year in The New York Times, none of the eight women had children of their own, and all of them effectively served as placeholders, maintaining the imperial line during times when no adult men were eligible for the throne. Japan’s last empress, Gosakuramachi, reigned from 1762 to 1770, when she was succeeded by her nephew.
During the 19th-century Meiji Restoration, Japan’s constitution officially barred women from holding the throne. Though a new constitution enacted after World War II did not include such a provision, the accompanying Imperial Household Act did state that the throne “shall be succeeded by male descendants in the male line.”
In recent years, the threat of an “heir crisis” has continually hovered over Japan and its royal family. Crown Prince Naruhito’s wife, Princess Masako, has reportedly battled depression for years, partially due to the intense pressure to produce a male heir. She and Naruhito have one daughter, 15-year-old Princess Aiko; she would be the first in line of succession if the Imperial Household Act is changed.