By: Todd Crowell

RELATED STORY: Incredible Shrinking Japan

The recent engagement of an imperial princess of Japan was the occasion for much handwringing in Japan over the family’s incredible shrinking ranks. In this instance, Princess Ayako, the daughter of a cousin of the current Emperor Akihito, agreed to marry a salaryman, Kei Moriya, who works for the shipping line Nippon Yusan KK.

All well and good and reason for good cheer and congratulations except the problem is that Princess Ayako is a woman and upon marriage must give up her title, leave the imperial family and become just plain Mrs. Moriya.

When her cousin, Princess Mako leaves the imperial family when she marries a former classmate in a wedding that was postponed as her prospective husband’s background is examined, the pool of imperial family members will decline from the current 19 to 17.

Aside from the two mentioned above, there are five unmarried princesses. Three are in their thirties; the only teenager among them is Princess Aiko, the 16-year-old daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito and his consort Masako.

Only one boy has been born into the Imperial family in the past 40 years. He is Prince Hisahito, now 11, the only male of his generation. He is currently third in line to become Japan’s next emperor.

So the succession seems secure at least for the near future. Crown Prince Naruhito is only 58 and has long been groomed to succeed his father. After him comes Prince Hisahito. But there is no margin for error, no Prince Harry to step in if the situation demands it.

It is safe to say there will be no more boys born into the family for a long time. Princess Kiko gave birth to the prince at age 39 and won’t be getting pregnant again. Princess Aiko aside. Naruhito’s wife Masako is not likely to conceive gain.

The postwar American occupation was partly responsible for this state of affairs. The Americans retained the emperor in order to make the occupation more palatable to the Japanese. But they destroyed the imperial infrastructure that went with it.

Strangely, given how the Americans encouraged emancipation of women in Japan, they left in place the law that restrict the monarchy to males only.

Monarchs present and future find it impossible to find suitable wives under this system. That is why the reigning emperor and his grown up successors married commoners; there was literally nobody else to marry.

In 2005, when it looked like there might never be a suitable male heir to the throne, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reluctantly proposed legislation that would allow for a reigning empress, not just a consort.

The proposed legislation was withdrawn quicker than you can say banzai with the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006 assuring that there were sufficient males to carry the dynasty on at least for the near future.

When the opposition won power in 2008, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reopened the matter of succession by allowing imperial houses led by female family members – such as Princess Ayako . But Noda lost power to conservative Shinzo Abe and the matter was quietly dropped.

Emperor Akihito reopened the debate in 2016 when he announced that he wanted to abdicate in favor of his son and retire from public life. The possibility of an emperor’s abdication was not addressed in the Imperial House Law that governs imperial matters.

The government was willing to make a change to the law to accommodate the siting monarch, but the government took great pains to explain that this was a one-off gesture to pave the way for the abdication and nothing else.

Abe was afraid that any kind of open-ended debate would inevitably raise the issue of female succession to the throne, something that Abe and other conservatives in Japan oppose vehemently.

The new law had an attached resolution asking for the government to promptly to deal with measures that address the Imperial families rapidly shrinking membership and report back to parliament. So far, no report has been forthcoming.

The option of creating imperial households headed by women, which would allow the female members to retain their royal status, has also been broached by the government but is fiercely opposed by conservatives, of whom Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a member in good standing.

Under the American-written constitution, the emperor serves as a symbol of the state and the unity of the people and derives his authority from “the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” Public opinion polls consistently show that the public favors female succession.

There is another solution to the problem of the shrinking family. It has been suggested that male members of aristocracy who were demoted to mere citizens during the American occupation be brought into the Imperial family as possible candidates for the throne.

In the unlikely event this plan would ever be adopted, the scion some Japanese living quietly as a commoner for the past 70 years might find himself the founder of an entirely new imperial dynasty.