November 2005 was a month of two major developments for Japan’s imperial house. First was the marriage of Princess Sayako, daughter of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, to Kuroda Yoshiki, an employee of the Tokyo metropolitan government, on November 15. With her marriage, the 36-year-old princess gave up her status as a member of the imperial family and became an ordinary citizen.

Aside from the performance of her duties as a member of the imperial family, Princess Sayako had been active as an avian researcher, working part time at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology. With her intelligence, consideration, and literary talent, the princess had won the hearts of the public. The announcement of her engagement to Kuroda—whom she had known since childhood as a close friend of her brother Prince Akishino, and with whom she had developed a natural relationship—was a cause of general rejoicing.

The second major development was the release of the report of the Advisory Council on the Imperial House Law on November 24.

Among the members of the current imperial family, the youngest male is 40-year-old Prince Akishino. All nine of the family members younger than he are princesses. But under the rules of succession in the Imperial House Law, only males in a male line of imperial descent are eligible to succeed to the throne. Unless a boy is born to Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako or to Prince and Princess Akishino, the line of succession will eventually come to an end for lack of an eligible successor.

It was in response to this critical situation that in January 2005 the Advisory Council on the Imperial House Law was established and charged by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirô with the task of deliberating the system of imperial succession. The 10-member council included five male scholars, along with the chairman of Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), a former justice of the Supreme Court, and a former deputy chief cabinet secretary; two of the members were women: Ogata Sadako, who is currently serving as president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and me.

The key point of the council’s report was the recommendation that eligibility for the imperial succession be extended to females and to those in a female line of imperial descent, with the order of succession to be determined by “absolute primogeniture,” meaning that the eldest child, male or female, would take precedence among siblings. Another recommended change concerns the status of princesses who marry. Under the present law, they lose their status as members of the imperial family upon marriage. The revision would allow them to maintain their status, just like princes who marry.

The government is planning to submit a bill for revision of the Imperial House Law to the National Diet in January. Prime Minister Koizumi has declared his intention of securing enactment of a revision based on the council’s recommendations. Meanwhile, however, the proposed changes have been meeting strong resistance from the camp of those who insist on maintaining the present system of succession limited to males in a male line of descent. Their biggest objection is that succession through a female line of descent would break what has been “an unbroken line from time immemorial” of descent through males.

It is true that up to now every person who succeeded to the imperial throne over the long history of the Japanese monarchy—including the eight women who reigned as empresses—has been a previous emperor’s offspring or descendant through a male line. But what made it possible to maintain this male-line succession was the previous system of allowing emperors to take concubines. This is not something that can be countenanced today. The adherents of the present system call for the succession to be maintained by turning to the former princely houses, branches of the imperial family that lost their imperial status as part of the changes made shortly after World War II. But these branches separated from the current imperial line six centuries ago, and their members have been living as ordinary citizens for almost 60 years. It is hard to see how a person from one of these families could win public support as the “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people” as the emperor is defined in Article 1 of the Constitution.

In an opinion survey taken in 1975, 55% of the respondents were of the opinion that the throne should be limited to males, and only 32% approved of allowing females to reign. But since then public sentiment has shifted sharply, particularly since Princess Aiko was born to the crown prince and crown princess in December 2001. An October 2005 poll found 84% expressing approval of a reigning empress, and 74% saw no need to limit the succession to a male line of descent.

One peculiar objection that has been advanced is that it was too “hasty” for the advisory council to reach a conclusion on such a weighty matter within a single year. However, this matter was actually under study by a group within the Cabinet Secretariat for a period of seven or eight years prior to the establishment of our council.

Yet another objection is that we did not listen to the views of the imperial family itself. However, both the emperor and the crown prince have let it be known that they will not express themselves on this subject because of their status. Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a cousin of the present emperor, has voiced doubts about allowing a woman to succeed to the throne and has suggested that the former princely houses or the system of imperial concubines could be restored, but one can only be taken aback at the anachronism of his views. It has also been asserted that it will be difficult to find a consort for a female successor to the throne, but this is a point that applies to male successors as well. It is to be hoped that those concerned will find ways to allow future successors good opportunities to meet potential mates. (Iwao Sumiko, editor in chief; Professor, Musashi Institute of Technology)