Shortcuts / 21 October 2021

The Japanese Imperial Family’s woman problem

In Japan, a royal wedding scheduled for next week has caused quite the stir. The Emperor’s niece is marrying a commoner, which means she’s out of the family. It’s highlighted the challenge the Imperial Family has because only men can inherit the throne, and they are running out of them. So in this Squiz Shortcuts, we take you through the history behind the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, how the Imperial House of Japan works, and the background to Princess Mako’s wedding that has put the family in the spotlight once again.

Let’s kick this off – we’re all over the British royals. But Japan’s royals – not so much…
So let’s get our terms right: the Imperial House of Japan is also referred to as the Imperial Family. It recognises 126 monarchs, from Emperor Jimmu who kicked things off in 660 BC and that continues up to the current emperor, Naruhito. 

That’s one impressive family tree. So how did Emperor Jimmu come to found the Imperial dynasty?
As with these things, there’s a fair bit of legend attached… Jimmu is the ruling family of Japan’s link to the divine ancestors. He is said to have been a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and he married a descendant of the storm god Susanoo. Emperor Jimmu is credited with battling local warlords to bring order to the land. 

That’s a lot of history…
And Japan is the only modern nation to still refer to the head of its royal family as ‘Emperor’ – locally he is called Tennō, or “heavenly sovereign,” which is a nod to the notion that he is descended from gods. 

You say ‘he’…
Yep, so unlike other hereditary monarchies around the world, women can not inherit the throne. The Emperor’s unmarried legitimate daughters and unmarried legitimate granddaughters are excluded when they marry because that can only occur outside the Imperial Family.  

So not a lot has changed in… forever?
That’s not true. A lot changed with Japan’s defeat against the Allies in WWII. Emperor Hirohito was on the throne at the time, and how involved he was in formulating Japan’s expansionist policies is a matter of debate. But under the country’s new constitution drafted by the US after the war, Japan became a constitutional monarchy. 

Which means…
Power was given to the people, and the emperor’s powers were severely curtailed. 

How did that change things?
He became a national figurehead, and Emperor Hirohito began to make public appearances and the family permitted the publication of pictures and stories about their personal lives. That was something that hadn’t been done before. 

Also breaking with tradition was Hirohito’s son Crown Prince Akihito marrying a commoner…
Yep, that was in 1959. He became Emperor in 1989 after Hirohito died. Akihito and his wife Shōda Michiko had 3 children, including Crown Prince Naruhito. He was born 1960.

What happened to Akihito? 
He abdicated in 2019. That was another thing that hadn’t been done before – before then, death was the only way out. 

So Naruhito’s now the top guy?
Naruhito is the emperor, his wife Masako is the Empress, and they have a daughter Aiko, who is 19yo.

But Princess Aiko can’t inherit the throne, right?
Right. And the debate about the future of the family has heated up in recent times as yet another princess is set to leave the family to marry a commoner.

Who dat?
Princess Mako. She’s the eldest daughter of Narihito’s brother, Crown Prince Fumihito, who is first in line to the throne should something happen to Naruhito.

Who is she marrying?
A commoner, her longtime boyfriend Kei Komuro. And there have been years of controversy over their relationship…

Gimme the goss…
The crux of the drama centres around Komuro’s mother’s financial problems – she had reportedly taken a loan from her ex-fiancé and not paid him back. So Komuro was sort of painted like a bit of a gold digger by the media. That’s been hard to shake, and it has seen their wedding significantly delayed. 

Mud sticks, eh?
It sure does. The couple is looking to move to the US once they are married, where Komuro works as a lawyer. All of that has led to them being dubbed the ‘Harry and Meghan of Japan’. 

But the wedding’s on track to go ahead?
Yep, and on Tuesday next week (26 October), it’s all systems go. That will see Princess Mako give up her royal status, like the women before her.

Do they give her a farewell present?
She is entitled to a dowry worth 150 million yen (about AU$1.5 million), but reports say Princess Mako will forgo it – royal watchers reckon she has given it up to put that issue about money to bed.

So who is next in line to inherit the throne?
As we mentioned, it’s Naruhito’s brother, Crown Prince Fumihito. Then it’s Fumihito’s 14yo son Hisahito. After that, it’s Naruhito’s 85yo uncle. 

That’s not much of a business model…
No. And to zoom out a bit: there are 18 members of the Imperial Family, 7 are aged under 40yo, and just one is male.

So why not change the rules to allow women to become ruling empress? 
That’s one of the questions that has bubbled to the surface with Princess Mako’s wedding. 

What’s the other question? 
Whether to allow males born to women from the Imperial Family to inherit the throne. That would mean women are permitted to remain in the household after marrying “commoners”.

Got you. So how are those sorts of things considered?
A panel of experts was recently appointed by the government, and they will hold “careful discussions” on a range of options.

And isn’t Japan heading to a general election at the end of the month?
It is, so this debate is in the churn of all that. But it could be a popular one for political leaders to embrace with polling showing support for change. In a recent poll, 87% were broadly supportive of a reigning empress, while 80% said males from the family’s maternal line should be allowed to become emperor. 

So, you never know… 
You never know, but it’s a lot of history to cast off… 

Squiz recommends:

Watching: How Japanese citizens are reacting to princess’ wedding date – CNN. It has lots of clips of the Japanese royals, Princess Mako and her husband to be, and it helps with putting names to faces.

Reading: The princess, the palace and the shrinking royal line – BBC. It’s a great explainer on all the issues with Princess Mako’s engagement and it’s got a handy family tree so you can visualise it.

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