The Imperial family is shrinking, a quandary that alongside the issue of succession is becoming more problematic as the princesses grow older. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said at a daily briefing Friday that the royal family’s dwindling family tree is an “urgent” issue that warrants national debate. The problem is traced back to the Imperial House Law, which dictates that women in the royal family have to forfeit their imperial status when they marry a commoner. While the scarcity of sons in the royal family has put the future succession to the throne in peril, the plenitude of daughters is now posing a separate challenge as more princesses start thinking about marriage.
It will become more pronounced as the generations further up the tree become weaker in their old age, making it difficult to travel around the country. There are only seven men in the 23-member royal family—five of whom are over the age of 60. Meanwhile, there are eight unmarried women. Although marriage is still a long way off for nine-year-old Princess Aiko, the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, it’s a realistic topic for her older cousins, most of whom are in their 20s. Anxiety around the gender imbalance has grown in recent months. Princess Mako, the oldest daughter of Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, turned 20 in late October—the “coming of age” year in Japan, bringing the number of unmarried adult women in the royal family to six. Her five-year-old brother Prince Hisahito was the first boy to be born into the royal family in more than 40 years.
The royal status issue was raised at Friday’s briefing after a reporter inquired about an October meeting of Shingo Haketa, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. The agency chief broached the question of extending royal status with the prime minister during the visit, the government spokesman said. The issue has more immediate urgency than even the succession crisis. With no more than one to two years separating them, the age range of the unmarried princesses is stacked closely from Princess Akiko, the oldest of the bunch at 29 years old, on down. The average age is 24.3. Should they get married in quick order—if they marry at all—the household could find itself with a big hole nearly impossible to fill without a revision to the imperial house laws. While the government spokesman left the door ajar on that point, it remained firmly shut on whether the succession laws will be amended. Mr. Fujimura said Friday the government isn’t considering whether to change the law that would allow women to inherit the throne and that the agency hasn’t requested a revision be discussed.
Absent a change Japan remains desperate for a male heir—Prince Hisahito is the third and last in line to the throne after Crown Prince Naruhito and Akishino, his father. Attempts to change the law in the past have been vehemently opposed by conservatives. In 2005, an expert panel recommended changing the half-century old rule to allow women to reign to stabilize the problem, a proposal strongly supported by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But conservatives and his successor, Shinzo Abe, shut down the idea. An amendment would make Princess Aiko Japan’s first reigning empress since the 18th century.