The Shinto establishment is extremely concerned with the position of the Tennō in Japanese society. There are a number of reasons for this, among them the fact that the ceremonies he performs for, and offerings he makes to, the kami are of great significance in many views of Shinto.
The position of Tennō is also hereditary. It can only be held by someone from the Imperial line, and there is an oracle to that effect from Hachiman Ōkami, issued in the eighth century when a Buddhist monk was trying to become Tennō. However, father-to-son inheritance has been much less common than one might think; the current Tennō is conventionally the 126th (although around 15 of those Tennō probably never actually existed), but only about half of the past Tennō are his ancestors. It has not been at all uncommon for the status to pass to a brother, cousin, or nephew.
Right now, there are only five living male members of the Imperial family. One is the Jōkō, the previous Tennō, and another is his younger brother. They are both in their eighties. Another is the Tennō, and the fourth is the Kōshi, the Tennō’s younger brother and the next in line. The final one is Prince Hisahito, the Kōshi’s teenage son. This matters because, under current law, the Tennō must be a male member of the Imperial family, and the Imperial family is defined by male descent. Although the Tennō has a daughter and Prince Hisahito has two sisters, they are not eligible to become Tennō, and their children, if they have any, will not be members of the Imperial family. Neither the Tennō nor the Kōshi is going to have any more children. So, if Prince Hisahito has a normal number of children for this day and age, there is somewhere between a one in two and one in sixteen chance that they will all be girls. None of them would be eligible to become Tennō, and neither would their children. The Imperial line would become extinct.
People have been concerned about this for a while now, particularly before Prince Hisahito was born. When he was, the whole problem was shelved, but it wasn’t really solved. People have been pushing for a more permanent solution for some time.
This has become pressing because the law passed to depose the previous Tennō specified that, once the process was over, the government should look into, as a matter of urgency, ensuring that the Imperial line would not go extinct in the near future, and it explicitly indicates that they should look into allowing female members of the Imperial family to remain in the Imperial family after marriage, as the heads of what are called “miyakë”. (That means something like “palace household”.) Given that, in addition to the three daughters of the Tennō and Kōshi, there are also three female members of the Imperial household who are still unmarried and under forty in junior branches, the “obvious” solution is to change the law so that they and their children become eligible to become Tennō. Suddenly, things would look a lot less urgent.
The Shinto establishment is dead set against this solution. They are firmly committed to the Tennō remaining restricted to male descendants in the male line. That raises two questions: Why? And: What is their proposed solution?
I will look at those questions in future blog posts.