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Home > 2021 > Japan’s imperial system faces existential crisis | Rajaram Panda

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 47, New Delhi, November 6, 2021

Japan’s imperial system faces existential crisis | Rajaram Panda

Friday 5 November 2021, by Rajaram Panda



Since the return of commoner Kei Komuro to Japan from the United States after a period of studying law, the talks of his impending wedding with his college girl friend Princess Mako, the eldest granddaughter of Emeritus Emperor Akihito and daughter of his second son Prince Akishino dominated headlines in leading Japanese newspapers. After a wait of three years, finally the two lovebirds tied the knot on 26 October in a simple ceremony devoid of any regalia normally associated with royalty. The same afternoon, Princess Mako’s appellation changed from "Mako-sama" to "(Komuro) Mako-san."

Institution of Emperor

No other royal issue in any country in the world assumes national consciousness as that of Japan. Before analysing what impact Mako-Komuro marriage left in Japanese consciousness, it might be instructive to know what the institution of the Emperor means to the Japanese people.

Japan’s is the world’s oldest monarchy and a host of rituals regarding succession when an Emperor in office dies or abdicates are associated with it. This is embedded in the deep-rooted Japanese culture and tradition. According to legend, the mythical forefather of Japan’s first emperor Jimmu ruled almost 2,700 years ago. The Japanese monarchy is the oldest continuing hereditary monarch in the world, with some dating back to around 600 BC.

In the Chrysanthemum traditions, Prince Naruhito who succeeded when his father abdicated became the 126th Emperor of Japan, the latest in an unbroken line that stretches back 14 centuries. His accession also signalled officially the start of the “Reiwa” era. Each emperor’s reign is marked by their era name. Reiwa was adopted from an 8th century anthology of classic poetry and means “beautiful harmony”.

Japan’s defeat in World War II saw a recast on the role of the emperor. At that time the present Emperor Naruhito’s father, now Emeritus Emperor Hirohito, was on the throne. Once considered the living embodiment of gods, the emperor has become a largely symbolic figure. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Douglas MacArthur during the Occupation post-War period in his greater wisdom did not tamper with the institution of the Emperor fearing rebellion by Japanese people, nor did he bring in the Emperor as a war criminal to be tried at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (known as Tokyo trial). Instead all political powers of the Emperor were stripped rendering him to be a symbol of the state rather than the head of state. Thus, since the War the Japanese emperor has not wielded any political power.

Succession issue

Princess Mako’s marriage with Komuro has again raised the burning issue of succession. Since the existing norms bar any female from succeeding to the throne and with the number of males in the imperial family dwindling, the question of succession hogs media headlines as the number of imperial family becomes one less with Mako’s marriage. Now the imperial household faces an existential threat.

It is running out of heirs. There were 67 members of Japan’s royal family after World War II. After Mako’s marriage, there are now only 16 with only three heirs to the throne among them. After Emperor Naruhito, his only successors are his 55-year-old brother, Akishino, and Akishino’s son and Mako’s brother, the 15-year-old Hisahito. Naruhito’s 85-year-old uncle, Hitachi, is technically third in line of succession. When the current Empress Masako failed to deliver a male child for quite some time, debate started if women heirs to the throne be allowed. This debate subsided when Hisahito was born, giving new hope to the succession issue in the imperial family. Yet, the issue of revising the Imperial Household Law to admit women as heirs to the throne remains as teenage Hisahito could be the end of the line.

With Princess Mako (30) now married a commoner Komuro (30), thereby giving up her royal title, attention is again back to the rapidly shrinking number of imperial family members and imperial succession. She is now a commoner and not expected to carry out public duties of the imperial family. There are 16 imperial family members remaining. Of these, eight are age 60 or older, and five are unmarried females. Under the current system, a newborn member of the imperial family will carry out public duties after grown. However, if the member is a female, she will leave the imperial family upon marriage to a commoner.

In 2006, legislation was proposed to allow female heirs to be in line to the throne but was shelved after the birth of Prince Hisahito, the first male child in almost four decades. When Yoshihiko Noda was Prime Minister, he floated in 2011 the idea of creating a branch of the imperial family when a female member marries so that she can remain in the imperial family. After Noda lost power and was replaced by Abe Shinzo, the idea was dropped until in March 2021 when a panel of experts started discussing how to maintain the number of imperial family members and concluded it is an “urgent issue”.

The panel released a progress report in July and proposed two ideas. One is to allow female members to remain in the imperial family after marriage. The other is to bring back male members of former branches of the imperial family who are descendants in the male line to the imperial family through adoption. The panel’s final report is expected to be released after the Lower House election on 31 October. Any change in increasing the number of imperial family members would mean revising the Imperial House Law. With sharp differences between political parties, that is a tough call.

This time around, Mako’s marriage raises again troubling issues related to the imperial family. Mako’s parents Crown Prince Fumihiko and Crown Princess Kiko described the lond-delayed marriage of their eldest daughter as “an unprecedented one for the imperial family.”

Two issues seemed behind this remark. One, news surfaced that Komura’s mother was involved in some “financial problems” having borrowed some money from her ex-fiancé and unable to return. The other issue could have been talks of “human rights of imperial family members” that hogged the limelight. Article 24 of the Constitution states that, “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.” At the same time, Article 1 of the Constitution states that the emperor derives “his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” Based on that provision, when Fumihito had asked that the marriage be one that received the blessing of the general public, it led Mako and Komuro to postpone their wedding for more than three years. It was then Komuro left for the US for study.

The question that spurred the debate and the subsequent postponement was that since the emperor is the symbol of the state, this entails a certain degree of public interest in disclosing information about the financial problems of Komuro’s mother and thus seeking an answer if Komuro was a suitable marriage partner to Mako or not.

Fumihiko and Kiko could also have possibly factored in that when Michiko and Masako joined the imperial family as private citizens, both suffered various problems, with Michiko unable to speak and Masako diagnosed with adjustment disorder. Masako’s delayed pregnancy and unable to deliver a son also psychologically impacted her mind when talks started doing the round that made succession issue was heading towards a crisis. She suffered from a stress-induced illness since giving birth in 2001 to Princess Aiko, 19, the only child between her and the emperor amid pressure to produce a male heir. Choosing the sex of an offspring of a couple is not in their hands and this fact was never considered.

Mako born into the imperial family found it difficult to keep her imperial life divorced from her own private life when she found that every move of the imperial family was under close public scrutiny. Subsequently, she was diagnosed with complex post- traumatic stress disorder and probably was clamouring to be liberated from such a claustrophobic environment. This, she aspired to achieve by marrying Komuro, move to New York with him and be away from the public and media glare. The fact that Mako used the strong term “libelous remarks” during the news conference showed that all that she wanted to do was marry the man she loved, but she was hurt by the criticism, including speculation, that repeatedly put her desire in question. In a commentary, the popular Asahi Shimbun rightly observed that human rights and dignity of every individual, ordinary or otherwise, must be given primacy of space and this includes those from the imperial family.

Komuro was Mako’s sweetheart from the university days and both were made for each other. However, the controversy that erupted over Komuro being a commoner putting Mako on a bother also highlighted the struggle that members of the imperial family have in balancing their public and private lives. This is the vagary in maintaining a monarchy in a modern democracy. As it proved in the end, Mako was a strong woman and she heard more to her heart than unnecessary controversy. Emeritus Emperor Akihito and Emiritia Michiko were sad that their eldest granddaughter was leaving the imperial place but offered their best wishes when Mako met then and offered her last bow. The nation should join with them at this moment and allow Mako to have her own space in her life that gives her happiness and bliss.

But what stunned the nation was that Mako skipped the usual traditional rites and turned down a lump-sum payment of up to about 150 million yen ($1.3 million) in taxpayer money, amid public unease over media reports on a financial dispute involving Komuro’s mother. Probably Mako was hurt without expressing herself as such over mention in Japanese tabloids and TV talks that a part of the money she was to receive for leaving the imperial house would go towards settlement of Komuro family’s financial trouble, which is why she turned down to accept the lump-sum payment, the first to do so since World War II. That was a big snub to the detractors. When their unofficial engagement was announced in 2017, the reports of an alleged financial dispute in which Komuro’s mother was involved, the traditional imperial ceremony of betrothal (Nosai-no-Gi) was postponed and Komuro left for the US for study. The three years of separation for the two lovebirds must have been too painful as they could not see each other, except chats online.

Princess Mako relinquished her royal status after marriage with Komuro and became Mako Komuro under a family registry after the Imperial Household Agency submitted legal paperwork to register the couple’s marriage on their behalf. Japan’s imperial family members do not need passport to travel abroad. Now Mako as a commoner needs one. She has already applied for one and soon shift base to New York with Komoru. Mako’s decision could be a warning sign and that Japan’s imperial system could face a crisis in the future. If in future, male heirs to the throne follow Mako’s footstep and decide to pursue a life based on their personal choice and leave the household in the future, the imperial system’s existential threat could be real.

At present, Prince Hisahito is second in line to the throne and is the only heir of his generation. The 1947 Imperial House Law limits inheritance of the chrysanthemum throne to a male who has an emperor on his father’s side. Prince Hisahito is young now and not of marriageable age. But when the time comes for him to find a wife and weds, the nation would be too anxious to wait if Hisahito has a son. Imagine what kind of psychological pressure such speculation would put on Hisahito and his future wife as was the case with the current Empress Masako when she delivered a daughter, not a son, thereby closing the current Emperor line of imperial succession. Another possible scenario that could be more scary is what if Prince Hisahito decides on maturity after watching so much stress over the succession issue to not become the emperor and chooses to live the life of a commoner or even decides to live in another country, the future of the imperial family would be in limbo and maintaining the system could become unsustainable. The huge question is, will the Japanese people accept to live without the monarchy and accept the change of century-old system. It seems tough to understand such a possible scenario. The reality has dawned that the burdens outweigh the benefits of being an imperial family member. So, anything is possible.

The imperial family members live with suppressed freedom and human rights. Some seek liberation as Mako did. Others could follow in future. In the eyes of the general public, the imperial family is a symbol of “morality” at the expense of their privacy and freedom. But one needs to note that the imperial family members, either males or females, are human beings like any non-imperial persons having the same feelings and emotions and confining them within a claustrophobic environment under the garb of traditions and system would be a mockery of the imperial system and a violation of individual liberty and human rights. Such factors must weigh in the minds of the experts who might be tasked with redrafting the imperial household rules for the future.

In view of the above-mentioned grim possible scenario, does it mean the impending end of the imperial system in Japan? With Mako’s exit, now there are only 12 women and four men in the imperial family. Mako’s wedding to Komuro should wake up to the calls for following women to be part of the line of succession as a way to shore up the world’s oldest continuous hereditary imperial system. This will be in compliance with modern ideas about gender equality. Opinion surveys in recent times in Japan also endorse to the view that females too should be allowed to be emperor. Lawmakers need to understand the situation in a dispassionate manner and reflect for the future and amend the Japanese law that govern the line of succession issue and other imperial house laws.

More recently, when Yoshihide Suga became Prime Minister he launched an expert panel to look into the matter. That could not make any progress with his resignation. His successor Fumio Kishida opposes passing down the throne through an empress.

While the debate on succession issue continues in Japan, Mako and Komuro are headed soon to the US without any financial support from the imperial family or the Japanese government. Komura after completing his study on law has reportedly secured a job with a Manhattan law farm. Mako with a Master’s degree in art museum studies may look for opportunities to be meaningfully engaged. The beautiful aspect of the whole saga is that Mako and Komuro would now have a welcome reprieve after years of media scrutiny and Japan should respect that.

(Author: Prof. Rajaram Panda, a leading expert on Japan, is currently Senior Fellow At Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. )

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