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15 Nov 2018 10:25
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why has Japan's shrinking Imperial Family lost another princess?

    Casting aside the trappings of palace life in order to marry a commoner definitely sounds romantic — but in reality, Japan's princesses don't have any other options.

    Japanese Princess Ayako has this week given up her royal title and allowance after choosing to marry a commoner, making her the second princess to leave the Imperial Family this decade.

    She's followed in the footsteps of her big sister Noriko, who took up the simple life following her marriage to a commoner in 2014, and the pair could soon be followed by their relative, Princess Mako, who is also set to marry a non-royal in 2020.

    But while casting aside the trappings of palace life in order to marry whoever you choose may sound romantic, the fact is Japan's princesses don't actually have many other options.

    There aren't any potential suitors of noble stock, and unless they marry a male blood relative — of which there are very few to begin with — marrying down is their only choice.

    Japan's Imperial Family may be the oldest continuous monarchy in human history, but it's shrinking, and it may even face a succession crisis in coming decades if more princesses leave the family.

    Why do the princesses have to leave?

    Under Imperial House Law — put in place in 1947 during the American occupation of Japan following World War II — princesses who marry commoners must lose their royal status.

    They get a lump sum payment to help send them on their way — Princess Ayako will receive $1.3 million — but after that, they are expected to look after themselves.

    Lauren Richardson, the director of studies at the Australian National University's Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, said the law was in part a post-war cost-cutting measure aimed at reducing the size of the Imperial Family.

    "They didn't want the Imperial Family growing too large, they didn't want that financial cost, so they put various constraints on it," she said.

    "In a sense that law's kind of backfired, and now they've got a problem with the royal family shrinking."

    The post-war razor gang also dramatically clipped back the royal family tree, cutting out the vast majority of Japan's former noble houses — only Emperor Hirohito's immediate family, and those of his brothers, were allowed to remain royalty.

    That means there aren't really any potential noble suitors for Japan's princesses, who would need to marry a relative within the Imperial Family, or not marry at all, in order to remain a royal.

    "There are definitely shrinking options, so that's creating all sorts of problems. They don't actually have a lot of choice," Dr Richardson said.

    "There might have been some expectation perhaps that they wouldn't get married until there were some more options [within the royal family].

    "I think that's been another problem and it's partly causing what we're seeing now: women marrying outside the family, or choosing to."

    Japan's 41-year royal male drought

    The marriage rule does not apply to Japan's royal princes, though, who are able to marry whoever they want and confer royal status on their wives.

    Sons from those marriages — not the daughters — then join the line of succession for the Chrysanthemum Throne.

    The succession rule means the Imperial Family is able to endure into the future despite the size restrictions, just as long as males keep being born.

    But decades of tough luck meant these restrictions backfired for Japan's royals.

    In the 41 years between 1965 and 2006, no male children were born into Japan's Imperial Family — there were plenty of princesses, but no princes.

    Two decades ago, Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Crown Princess Masako were having difficulty conceiving a child, and when their only daughter Princess Aiko was born in 2001, a national debate on whether to change the law so she could one day become Empress kicked off.

    This idea eventually gained the support of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but it was kicked to the kerb following the 2006 birth of Prince Hisahito, the Crown Prince's nephew.

    The 41-year royal male drought has thus dramatically shortened the line of succession, and there are currently only four heirs to the throne: Crown Prince Naruhito, 58; Prince Akishino, 52; Prince Hisahito, 12; and Prince Hitachi, 82.

    If you cut out the two middle-aged men and the octogenarian, the future of Japan's Imperial Family — a semi-mythical, unbroken paternal lineage tracing back to the year 660 BC — falls solely on the shoulders of young Prince Hisahito.

    And if he does not have any sons in the future, Japan will face yet another succession crisis.

    Why doesn't Japan change the rules?

    Dr Richardson says while the succession debate is likely to kick off again if Prince Hisahito does not produce a male heir, an easy fix may be hard to come by.

    "Obviously Japanese politicians are really reluctant to challenge those Imperial laws," she said.

    "The Japanese legislature very much respects the Imperial Family and doesn't want to intrude upon it too much."

    Chief among the champions of tradition is Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has governed Japan for most of its post-war history.

    Short of allowing princesses to take the throne, another suggested fix to the succession issue would see some of the cadet branches cut from the Imperial Family tree back in 1947 restored to their royal status so that their sons too can become potential heirs.

    But Dr Richardson said the biggest roadblock to change is history and tradition: Japan's monarchy is the world's oldest, and many want it to continue on with the same customs that it always has.

    "Wanting to keep that lineage going, with male heirs, and males succeeding to the Emperor's throne, has been considered a very important part of Japanese tradition," she said.

    Beyond Japan's shortage of heirs to the throne, the shrinking of the Imperial Family is being compounded by the marriage law itself: there are currently only 18 members of the royal family, six of whom are unmarried princesses who may one day have to leave the family.

    This has been a nightmare for the family's public duties and appearances, and the Japanese Government has been looking into ways to allow princesses to still perform such duties after marriage.

    Another option to maintain the royal family tree that has been put forward would allow princesses to pass on royalty to their commoner husbands, but an editorial in the Japan Times earlier this year said conservative politicians were opposed to this.

    The fear from those politicians is, "Such a system could pave the way for reigning empresses or Imperial succession on the maternal lineage", the paper wrote at the time.

    Dr Richardson said there was still a possibility changes could come in the future, especially in the wake of a recently passed law allowing Emperor Akihito to become the first monarch in two centuries to abdicate.

    "I am quite hopeful that the law will change and give women more options," she said.

    "I think the change we're most likely to see is not a change that would allow women to ever succeed to the throne, but a change that would allow women to stay in the Imperial Family if they marry a commoner.

    "I think that's very possible, probably in the next few years."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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