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Waves of Change - Primogeniture Succession in Japan

It is said that the imperial family of Japan was so enamoured with chrysanthemum that they named their official seal and even their throne after it. Since then, the word chrysanthemum has been used to refer to both the real throne and the emperor himself. The word may also apply to a very unique seating arrangement, such as the Takamikura throne in Kyoto Imperial Palace's Shishin-den.

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About the Japanese Monarchy

The legendary emperor Jimmu is said to have established the Japanese monarchy in 660 B.C. With Naruhito as the 126th king to sit on the chrysanthemum throne, Japan is the world's oldest ongoing monarchy. According to Japan's new constitution, the emperor is "the emblem of the state and the unity of the people" (Article 1 of the constitution of Japan).The republican dictator is the modern ruler.The Takamikura throne, which can be found in the Royal Palace of Kyoto, is the monarchy's oldest living throne.

Succession to the Throne

The imperial family was streamlined to Emperor Taisho's heirs under the terms of the imperial household law. In Japan, the rules of descent prohibit inheritance by or by female lineage.

Showa Period Succession Debates

Since the accession of the Showa emperor in the late 1920s, there has been a debate over imperial succession. For the first eight years of their marriage, the Emperor and the Empress had only girls. Before the birth of Crown Prince Akihito in December 1933, the emperor's younger brother, Prince Chichibu, was first in line and heir presumptive to the throne.

The imperial family was streamlined to Emperor Taisho's heirs under the terms of the imperial household law. In Japan, the rules of descent prohibit inheritance by or by female lineage.

The birth of Princess Aiko (2001) ignited a controversy in Japan about whether the imperial household rule of 1947 should be modified from agnatic primogeniture(the law that allows only males to succeed) to full primogeniture(the law that allows the eldest child of the sovereign to ascend regardless of the gender), allowing the firstborn daughter to inherit the Chrysanthemum throne instead of a younger brother or male cousin.

On October 25, 2005, a government-appointed panel of experts issued a report proposing that the imperial succession law be changed to allow absolute primogeniture. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi addressed the controversy in part of his annual keynote speech on January 20, 2006, when he promised to send a bill to the Diet allowing women to rise to the throne so that the imperial throne could be maintained in a peaceful manner in the future although he was vague on what the law would include .

Birth of a Male Cousin

After it was announced that the Crown Prince's younger brother, Prince Akishino, and his wife Princess Akishino, were expecting their third child, proposals to reform the ascension guidelines were briefly shelved. Princess Kiko gave birth to a son, Hisahito, on September 6, 2006, who was third in line to the chrysanthemum throne under current law at the time of his birth, after his uncle, the then-crown prince, and his aunt, Prince Akishino. The prince's birth was the first time in 41 years that the royal family had a male heir. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared on January 3, 2007, that he would withdraw his plan to change the Imperial Household Rule. As a result, it appears that the succession laws will not be modified to enable princess Aiko to ascend the throne. The degree to which the new imperial household law code of succession can be revised is a source of debate. The right call for a reform, retaining prussian-style agnatic primogeniture while reintroducing previously removed male relatives into the imperial household. Liberals call for full primogeniture to be implemented. Moderates call for the restoration of older, indigenous succession traditions, which state that a female can ascend to the throne if she has seniority or proximity to the patrilineal kinship.

Adopting full primogeniture would allow unmarried or widowed female heirs of the Imperial House's male line to inherit the Chrysanthemum throne, as has happened in the past, but it would also allow something unprecedented: It will encourage married princesses and princesses' children whose fathers are not male line descendants of previous emperors to rise to the throne. Since dynasties are historically characterised patrilineally, this scenario may be viewed as a new dynasty assuming control of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Timeline of Numerous Debates on Women's Rights.


  • In order to avert a "heir crisis" the Japanese government declared on January 24, 2005 that it would propose allowing the Crown Prince and Princess to adopt a male infant. Adoption by other male-line branches of the Imperial Line is a centuries-old imperial Japanese practise for dynastic reasons, made illegal only by Western influence in modern times.


  • Prime Minister Junichir Koizumi addressed the controversy in part of his annual keynote speech on January 20, 2006, when he promised to send a bill to the Japanese Diet allowing women to rise to the throne so that imperial succession could be continued in a peaceful manner in the future. Princess Kiko gave birth to a baby boy named Prince Hisahito on September 6, 2006. He is second in line to the throne under current succession rule, but if the law is changed, Princess Aiko, who now has no right of succession, will take precedence over him and her uncle.


  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared on January 3, 2007, that he would withdraw his plan to amend the Imperial Household Act, which was proposed by the government of Shigeru Yoshida.


  • Emperor Akihito refrained from making his own comments on the succession debate in a speech commemorating his 20th anniversary after ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne in November 2009.


  • Shingo Haketa, Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Agency, visited Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in his office on October 5, 2011, and told him that enabling female members of the imperial family to establish family branches was a matter of urgency. The imperial family, according to the Grand Steward, is unable to maintain its affairs in a stable manner. Twelve members of the royal family were under the age of 60, with half of them being single princesses aged 20 to 30. The imperial family's ability to fulfil its duties would become more problematic when the princesses left the family by marriage.The agency also stated that since Prince Hisahito was Emperor Akihito's only grandchild eligible to inherit the throne, a mechanism to ensure stable succession to the imperial throne would be needed.


  • The government acknowledged "that sustaining the continuity of the Imperial Household's operations and lessening the pressure of official duties levied on Their Majesties, the Emperor and Empress are major issues of a high degree of urgency," Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura said at a press conference on January 6,2012. A Kyodo News poll conducted on January 7 and 8, 2012 found that 65.5 percent of Japanese citizens favoured the concept of allowing female members of the imperial family to maintain their imperial title after marriage.


  • Princess Noriko announced her engagement to Kunimaro civilian Senge on May 27, 2014. She left the imperial family after her marriage on October 5, 2014.


  • Prince Mikasa, one of the only five family members entitled to inherit the throne, died on October 27, 2016, at the age of 100. Just two children were born into the Imperial family in the preceding 15 years, while seven members died or married, bringing the total to 19.


  • Only male Imperial Family members were able to attend the main accession ceremony where Naruhito will collect the sacred regalia, the Japanese government announced in January 2019. Satsuki Katayama, Japan's first female cabinet minister, was permitted to participate because government ministers are deemed observers rather than members.


  • The Japanese government declared in April 2019 that internal negotiations on the succession crisis will begin after May 1.


  • In August 2020, then-Defense Minister Tar Kno defended matrilineal emperors, whose fathers had no bloodline relation to previous emperors, in an online programme, arguing that they should be considered to ensure a smooth succession to the Imperial Throne. He also said that "Imperial princesses (emperor's children or grandchildren), including Princess Aiko (Emperor Naruhito's daughter), could be accepted as the next emperor.Under the new succession laws, the Defense Minister concluded, it would be difficult to entice any future wife for the male heir, who would be under tremendous psychological pressure to become pregnant with a child.

Only “a male offspring in the male line belonging to the Imperial Lineage” may succeed to the throne of Japan, according to the Imperial House Law.

If Hisahito becomes Emperor without having a son, there will be no successor to the throne under the current regime. As a result, after Crown Prince Fumihito's ceremonial investiture on April 19, the government was expected to begin discussions on the succession issue. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, caused the ceremony to be postponed, leaving the succession issue unanswered.

Although Japan doesn’t allow women to ascend the Imperial throne, still eight women were able to ascend it when there was a sudden death of the emperor and the next male in the line to the throne was too young.

Japan’s Female Emperors

Even if it was not often used previously, the Japanese term Tenn for an imperial leader or "emperor" is still used retrospectively for all those who have ascended the throne. It is used for both male and female officials, unlike the English term "emperor."

Empress Suiko (r. 592–628)

Emperor Kinmei's daughter, she ascended to the throne after the assassination of Emperor Sushun by a member of the powerful Soga clan. Suiko's appointment was seen as offering national unity in the absence of an imminent decision over who will prevail. She presided over a period in which Buddhism flourished and the temple Hryji in Nara was constructed. During her rule, Japan established diplomatic missions in China.

Empress Kōgyoku (r. 642–645)/Saimei (r. 655–661)

When there was no consensus on succession after the death of her husband, Emperor Bidatsu's great-granddaughter, Kgyoku, ascended to the throne. After a few years, she abdicated, and her younger brother, Emperor Ktoku, ascended to the throne. When he died and there was no definite successor, she reverted to the name Saimei and ruled once more.

Empress Jitō (r. 690–697)

She rose to the throne as the daughter of Emperor Tenji and the wife of her predecessor, Emperor Tenmu, since her son Prince Kusakabe had a powerful competitor for the throne at the time. Jit ruled until her grandson, Emperor Monmu, was old enough to succeed her. Kusakabe died soon after.

Empress Genmei (r. 707–715)

She was Empress Jit's younger half-sister and Emperor Tenji's daughter, as well as the wife of Prince Kusakabe and mother of Emperor Monmu. Her grandson (later Emperor Shmu) was too young to replace Monmu at the time of his death, so she succeeded to the throne.

Empress Genshō (r. 715–724)

She was the daughter of Empress Genmei and the first woman to succeed a woman in imperial succession. She was in the male imperial line since her father was Prince Kusakabe, Emperor Tenmu's uncle. When Emperor Genmei abdicated after nine years, and the future Emperor Shmu was then considered too young to succeed, she ascended the throne.

Empress Kōken (r. 749–758)/Shōtoku (r. 764–770)

She was Emperor Shmu's daughter, and when her son died young, she became the first woman to be formally designated as the first in line to the throne. She ascended to the throne as Kken, but later abdicated in favour of her nephew, Emperor Junnin. During his rule, a power struggle erupted between him and retired Kken, who was supported by Buddhist monk Dōkyō, who became one of her most powerful allies. When Junnin's supporter Fujiwara Nakamaro tried to raise a revolt in order to reclaim power, her forces were defeated. She dethroned Junnin and reclaimed the throne as Shtoku, ruling for another six years.

Empress Meishō (r. 1629–43)

Emperor Go-Mizunoo, who had no sons when he abdicated due to a conflict between the Tokugawa shogunate and the imperial court, was succeeded by her. However, after his abdication, he had a son, and when the boy was old enough to become Emperor Go-Kmy, she abdicated the throne herself.

Empress Go-Sakuramachi (r. 1762–70)

Emperor Momozono's chosen heir was already too young to become emperor, so she ascended the throne as Emperor Sakuramachi's daughter. She then abdicated, and Go-Momozono became Emperor.

We see that Japan only allowed women to rule when either the next male in the line of throne was too small or they didn’t have any option.

Concluding Remarks

Japan is one of the most advanced countries in terms of technology , Japanese people are highly educated but still Japan is a prime example of patriarchy. Japan’s conservative patriarchal culture is highly influenced by Buddhist and Confucian values on which the country was built. They are not ready to leave their age-old customs which discriminate on the basis of gender and show Japan is a paradigm of misogynistic and patriarchal culture.


By Avni Goel

Avni is a first-year Economics Honours student from Hindu College.

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