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Japan pushes plan for female imperial branches

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Publication Date : 07-10-2012


Possible measures to counteract dwindling numbers of qualified heirs lack unanimous support

Concerned over the future of the Japan imperial family, the government in a report released Friday called for allowing princesses to create their own imperial branches, though support for the solution is far from unanimous.

The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will be tested over whether it can convince the Liberal Democratic Party and other opposition parties to cooperate in revising the Imperial House Law to achieve the proposal.

Allowing princesses to create new imperial branches would enable them to retain their royal status after marrying commoners. The idea comes as the number of people with a right to the throne--men with emperors on their fathers' side--continues to decline.

The government worries that if the situation continues, the Imperial family will find it difficult to maintain its current level of activity, possibly even endangering the existence of the family.

In Friday's report, the government expressed clear concern over the imperial family system.

"If the current system continues, we are gravely concerned the number of imperial family members able to support the Emperor in his duties or act as his proxy in constitutional duties will approach zero," the report said.

The government began examining the possibility of allowing female imperial family members to create their own branches after the Imperial Household Agency asked the government to do so as an "urgent matter" last autumn.

Noda reacted favourably to the request, showing willingness to take quick action on the issue at a press conference in December. In February, the Cabinet Secretariat began interviewing experts on the imperial family, and Friday's report was based on the results of six interview sessions, the last of which was held in July.

Many of the experts interviewed supported allowing princesses to create their own branches, and polls have showed the public agrees. A national Yomiuri Shimbun poll in December showed the idea had 64 per cent support.

However, some of the experts interviewed opposed the idea, saying it would be a stepping stone to allowing women or descendants of female imperial family members to take the throne. Some Diet members, particularly in the Liberal Democratic Party, also oppose the idea, making it difficult for the government to reach a consensus.

The issue fell by the wayside in the last ordinary Diet session as Noda focused on passing bills on the integrated reform of the social security and tax systems.

At the time, a proposal surfaced that would allow imperial women to continue using their imperial honorary status even after leaving the royal family. Experts who had opposed the idea of creating new imperial branches responded favourably to the idea, so the government officials in charge of the matter temporarily pursued this option.

Agency pushes for change

The Imperial Household Agency has become increasingly anxious over the newly surfaced proposal, and its worries reportedly stem from the concerns of the Emperor himself over the future of the imperial family.

As the Emperor strictly complies with Article 4 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the Emperor will have no government-related powers, the government has refrained from asking him and other members of the imperial family their opinions on whether princesses should be allowed to create their own branches.

However, the Emperor has received reports on the interviews that were conducted with experts over the matter, as well as on the developments of discussions over the creation of new branches.

Without asking directly, the Imperial Household Agency surmised the opinions of the emperor and imperial family members who would be directly affected by the change in the imperial family system, and quietly reported its views to the government, a senior agency official said.

In the first place, the idea of allowing imperial women to continue using their honorary imperial status even after leaving the royal family was fundamentally flawed, as it would not curb the decline in the royal population. Taking the views of the agency into account, the government concluded it would be difficult to implement the plan for former princesses to use honorary imperial titles. The idea might also have violated Article 14 of the Constitution, which requires equality under the law.

A senior agency official expressed relief Friday over the government's report. "The decrease in the number of imperial family members is unlikely to change in the near future. I hope the government will continue to discuss the issue even if the administration changes," he said.

The Imperial House Law has not changed since the end of World War II. The government hopes to achieve a unanimous vote on any revision to the law, considering the sensitivity of the matter.

However, with opposition parties controlling the House of Councillors, it will be difficult to pass a bill without the cooperation of the LDP and other opposition parties. At a press conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura called for the parties to work together, saying that the issue "should not be used for political confrontation."

However, conservative lawmakers, including new LDP President Shinzo Abe, are skeptical of allowing princesses to create their own imperial branches. They worry it could lead to women or the offspring of female royal lines ascending to the throne.

The government's report did not mention how to address the scarcity of imperial family members with a right to the throne.

The Noda administration has become increasingly unstable, with many Democratic Party of Japan members leaving the party in recent months. Noda must show he remains as committed to the issue as he claimed to be last year.


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