At the beginning of this month the Reiwa era of Japan began. On that day Emperor Naruhito became the 126th Japanese monarch as he took over the throne from his father, Emperor Akihito, who had abdicated the day before.
The role of Japanese emperor is almost entirely ceremonial and symbolic. But in one way at least the current royal family is perfectly apposite for the nation Emperor Naruhito ceremonially rules over.
As the New York Times reported, the ceremony on May 1 in which the new emperor was invested with the sacred sword, jewels and seals that signify his right to sit on the throne, illustrated a clear problem that the imperial family has: it is shrinking and ageing. Just like Japan’s wider population.
Aside from the new Emperor, the ceremony included all adult male heirs. All two of them. Emperor Naruhito’s uncle was there, Prince Hitachi, who is 83 years old and in a wheelchair. But never fear, Naruhito’s brother is also there: Prince Akishino a sprightly 53. (The Emperor is 59.) Absent was the only other male heir, Naruhito’s nephew, the 12 year old Prince Hisahito.
So there are a total of three male heirs to the throne. And one of those heirs is from the generation older than the current emperor. The trouble is twofold. First, the succession can only pass through the male line. Women are unable to ascend to the throne and they must renounce their titles and leave the family once they are married. Their male children cannot ascend to the throne.
Naturally, the dearth of male heirs has resulted in people questioning these laws. According to Kenneth J Ruoff, a specialist in Imperial Japan at Portland State University, “Everybody in Japan now speaks openly about the fact that the future of the imperial line is in grave danger. They don’t have any choice but to revisit the issue.” Others disagree. Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor of law and philosophy at Retaku University, argues that keeping a male only succession makes it clear that the imperial family is different from other normal families. Without this rule “eventually, the imperial system would end.”
However, even with this rule, the system is in real danger of ending. Here we come to the second, and rather obvious reason for imperial predicament: the Japanese royal family is not having enough babies. And, pace Hidetsugu Yagi, in this respect it is just like any normal Japanese family. Emperor Naruhito only has one child, a 17 year old daughter, Princess Aiko. His father had two sons and a daughter and Naruhito’s brother has one son and two daughters. I’m not suggesting that Naruhito go full Henry VIII, but surely the most important job of a monarch is to secure the future of the royal family. An heir and a spare are needed here!
All jokes aside, the lack of young male heirs to carry on the royal family seems strangely fitting for 21st century Japan.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography Is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.