Japan starts study on imperial succession amid ruling-party division over allowing women to take the throne

The government has started an informal study on ways to ensure stable imperial succession amid a dearth of male heirs by conducting hearings with experts behind the scenes, according to government sources.

The government is expected to begin full-scale debate, including by establishing an expert panel, after the Rikkoshi no Rei ceremony on April 19, during which Crown Prince Akishino, the younger brother of Emperor Naruhito, will proclaim his rise to first in line to the throne.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita is leading the informal study. According to the sources, the government has already dispatched personnel to seek opinions from multiple experts.

The officials are believed to be asking the experts about their views mainly on whether to allow women or heirs in the maternal line of the imperial family to assume the throne, in line with a proposal put forward by an expert panel commissioned by the government of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The hearings apparently also cover the idea of restoring imperial family status to those who left the family soon after the end of World War II and whether female members of the imperial family should be allowed to maintain their status as family members after marriage by heading family branches.

An envisaged expert panel is expected to discuss imperial succession on the basis of the results of these hearings.

The government is working informally on the issue of imperial succession as it postponed full-fledged discussions, initially planned to start after Daijosai enthronement-related ceremony in November last year, the sources said.

There were strong views that “active debates should be avoided before Crown Prince Akishino’s place in the line of succession is finalized,” one government source said.

On Dec. 27, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that “discussions (on imperial succession) should be held in a calm atmosphere.”

Members of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party are divided on the issue. Conservative members who support Abe call for maintaining the current rule of allowing only male offspring in the imperial family’s paternal line to assume the throne. They are also encouraging the government to create legislation to allow former imperial family members to be reinstated.

By contrast, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other party members who keep distance from the conservative members have not ruled out the option of allowing anyone in the family’s maternal line to take the throne, from the viewpoint of equal rights for both sexes.

One possible solution for the government is to postpone debate on whether to allow women or heirs in the maternal line of the imperial family to assume the throne and settle on a proposal to permit female heads of imperial family branches, although the idea will not necessarily ensure stable imperial succession, according to the sources.

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