Rethinking the Imperial House of Japan

The Japan Times recently had an interesting article about the Imperial Family of Japan, and how the current law has made the family so small, that there are very few heirs left. The Imperial Household Law of 1947 (Kōshitsu Tenpan 皇室典範) greatly streamlined the size of the family to only immediate relatives. Previously, the Imperial Family, like many royal houses in the past, had various collateral houses called ōke (王家), which had branched off from the Imperial family in the past. These houses also intermarried with the Fujiwara clan so much that the two families became very closely integrated.

Nevertheless, in 1947, the American Occupation insisted that the Imperial family be reduced because of its influence in Imperial times and WWII, and thus the law took effect. However, it seems the law may have worked too well as the existing Imperial family has had very few male heirs. Emperor Akihito has two sons: Prince Naruhito (the current heir) and Prince Akishino. But Prince Naruhito only has one child, a daughter (Prince Aiko, affectionately called “Aiko-sama”), while Prince Akishino has one son, Prince Hisahito. So, currently 3 males heirs exist and two of them are already middle-aged.

So, as the article shows, Prince Akishino who is the 2nd son of the current Emperor Akihito, is suggesting the law be updated especially as the health of Emperor Akihito is declining. The law was promulgated by the Japanese Diet, and so only the Diet can change it, but among the ideas suggested:

  • A mandatory retirement age for Emperors. In the old days, the throne changed pretty often, and sometimes ex-Emperors went into retirement but exerted lots of control, but with the benefit of being free from the obligations of the throne. These were called insei (院政) or “cloistered Emperors”. By the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the rules were changed, the throne was maintained until death, so the 20th century only had 4 Emperors total (Meiji, Taisho, Showa and the current Emperor).
  • Allow women to maintain Imperial status even after marriage so that the Imperial family could start new collateral houses. In the old Imperial custom, women lost their Imperial status after being married (usually marrying members of the Fujiwara clan), and even today Princesses routinely renounce the throne as they get married. This tradition predates the 1947 law. A few women, who were unmarried, became Empresses but usually as a placeholder until a male heir was decided on. The one major exception was Empress Suiko who reigned during Prince Shotoku and Soga no Umako. I’ve been meaning to write about here one of these days. She was interesting. 🙂

Speaking as someone who’s not Japanese, I have little opinion on the subject (I have no right to speak about it anyway), but I thought the article was interesting. 🙂

P.S. Blog mis-fire #2 today. ;p


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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