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Report on the Imperial Succession

The expert committee established by the Prime Minister to look into the question of how to secure the Imperial Succession has made its final report. It is a masterpiece of compromise and fudge, and I do mean that as a compliment. There is a chance of getting this past everyone who cares about the topic.

(This process has been reported in Jinja Shinpō multiple times, and the final report of the committee was discussed in an article in the December 13th 2021 edition.)

First, they have made it clear that they do not think there should be any changes to the currently established line of succession: from the current Tennō to his younger brother, and then to that brother’s (currently teenaged) son.

Second, they have said that a way should be found to allow female members of the Imperial family to remain in the Imperial family after marriage, so that they can continue to perform Imperial family duties.

Third, they have said that some male descendants in the male line of the Imperial families that were made into commoners after WWII should be adopted into the current Imperial families (the cadet branches), to boost the numbers.

Questions of succession should be discussed again later, because, they say, they are not urgent.

One notable thing that this report does not discuss is how to secure the Imperial Succession into the future. That might be thought a bit odd, considering its brief, but the whole topic is toxic, because there are significant groups that are violently opposed to each possible solution. The first point puts all of these protests on hold, because we should be safe for another few decades at least. Even the people who want to get away from male-line succession would find it hard to gain public sympathy for overturning the current plan right away, so this should not face too much opposition.

The third point will make conservatives happy, because they have pushed for this as a solution to the problem. Since the proposed plan is not to include these people in the line of succession, it should be less controversial than that would have been, and there is a real problem with the number of Imperials. As things stand, in thirty years’ time Prince Hisahito might be the only living member of the Imperial family, which would make it impossible to fulfil a number of legal requirements. (There are legally constituted bodies that need members of the Imperial family who are not the Tennō on them.) Thus, introducing men in the male line is a good move. There is no shortage of women in the male line (that’s the second point, to which I will return), but they cannot continue it. While adding such men to the Imperial family is completely without precedent, it might make it easier to accept one of their male descendants as the Tennō in a few decades’ time.

The second point looks a lot like a purely practical response to the declining number of Imperials. If the female members can remain Imperial on marriage, Prince Hisahito can be expected to have the necessary support at least until he has children who can take on the job. However, it has a much more important long-term implication, which has not been explicitly raised as far as I am aware. It clears the way for a female Tennō in the male line. If this practice gets people used to the idea of a female Imperial being married to a commoner and having commoner children, then it will be much easier to change the law so that both men and women in the male line can become Tennō.

So, the reason I think that this is a masterpiece is that it completely dodges the difficult question that the committee was specifically asked to address, but makes recommendations that, if implemented, will make it much easier to solve that problem if it actually becomes urgent.

And, of course, Prince Hisahito might have five sons, rendering the whole problem moot for another generation or two at least.

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5 thoughts on “Report on the Imperial Succession”

  1. Regarding the third point, what are the numbers? How many eligible men are there in the cadet branches?

    Of course, it may not be enough in the long run. Japan’s birth rate is 1.36 and falling, i.e. 0.68 sons per man, and inasmuch as that applies to the imperial family, it means the pool of eligible men shrinks 32% every generation.

    1. There are no men under 80 in the current cadet branches. There are a lot in the former cadet branches, because there were eleven of them when they were turned into commoners.

      The low birthrate is a problem. The Emperor Emeritus’s sons have had four children between them, three girls and a boy. That’s entirely normal statistics, so losing the female line every time is going to cause problems. The lineage survived this long because Tennō used to have multiple wives but, as I have mentioned before, that entirely traditional solution is completely off the table this time around.

  2. The more I read about the succession crisis, the more impressed I am by MacArthur’s genius. Preserve the Imperial line during the occupation to keep control of the country, but poison it so it dies of it’s own accord decades after SCAP leaves.

    I thought the biggest objections to adult adoption is that through marriage you get Tenno Kei Komuro and through the Shinnoke you get some other person everyone hates.

    1. I don’t think MacArthur could have predicted these problems. At the time the Imperial household was slimmed down, the Tennō had three brothers and two sons, and all the brothers were married. One of them even had three sons, who may have been born by that point (I don’t have their dates of birth to hand, but it must have been around then). It was the next generation that basically failed to produce any sons; I did the sums a while back, and I think you would expect it to happen about once in a thousand years.

      There are certain candidates that the establishment would not like to see in the line of succession, certainly. Of course, the conservatives are also very strongly attached to the idea that you do not get to choose who becomes Tennō. (That’s another position without good historical precedent; lots of the historical Tennō were chosen by powerful politicians.)

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