The imperial succession crisis in Japan

The imperial succession crisis in Japan
The recent death of Prince Katsura signifies a further shrinking of Japan’s royal clan, imperiling not only the conduct of religious court rituals that require the participation of members of royalty, but also the future of imperial succession in the nation.

Prince Katsura, a cousin of Japan's Emperor Akihito, died recently, just days after Princess Noriko, the second daughter of another late cousin of the Emperor, announced her engagement to a commoner.

The two events bothered royalists for the same reason: They signify a further shrinking of Japan's royal clan, imperilling not only the conduct of religious court rituals that require the participation of members of royalty, but also, even more importantly, the future of imperial succession in Japan.

The loss of Prince Katsura firstly means one less person able to participate in the "Oharai no gi", an important half-yearly purification ritual conducted by the Imperial Palace. With the Emperor and the Crown Prince exempted from taking part, the only royal houses that still qualify are those headed by the Emperor's second son, Prince Akishino, his 78-year-old younger brother Prince Hitachi and his 98-year- old uncle Prince Mikasa.

The Imperial Household Agency was quick to respond to this mini-crisis, calling immediately this month for a change to the rules to permit female royals to join in the rituals.

Even with the wedding later this year of Princess Noriko - who will have to give up her royal status upon her marriage - there will still be seven princesses in their 20s or 30s who can be called on to do so. The bigger problem is that of imperial succession.

The death of Prince Katsura leaves only five people in the line of succession to the Japanese throne. All five are males since females are currently not allowed to ascend to the throne.

The first in line is Crown Prince Naruhito, the Emperor's first son. He is followed by his brother Prince Akishino.

Third in line is Prince Hisahito, the seven-year-old son of Prince Akishino. Prince Hitachi, the Emperor's brother, and Prince Mikasa, his uncle, bring up the rear.

Prince Hitachi has no children.

The death of Prince Katsura, who never married, brings the branch of his father, Prince Mikasa, to an end since his two late brothers had only daughters.

About 10 years ago, during the administration of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a wise men's group comprising academics, business leaders and retired senior civil servants was put together to deliberate the imperial succession issue.

In a report in November 2005, the group, knowing the issue would split public opinion, gingerly recommended opening the door to female emperors as well as making it possible for succession by royals through the maternal line. But the birth of Prince Hisahito on Sept 6, 2006, threw cold water on the report.

After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took over the reins of administration on Sept 26 that year - for his first stint as premier - he shelved the entire matter.

A hardened conservative who dreams of restoring Japan to its pre-war glory, Mr Abe does not favour the idea of a female on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

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