explainer

The future of the Japanese monarchy rests on the shoulders of this 12-year-old boy.

Last September, Prince Hisahito of Japan appeared before the media to pose for photographs marking his 12th birthday. With cameras trained on him, the then-primary student played with giant bubbles, gleefully dragging a wand through the air, giggling as he caught them before they burst on the grass.

But this seemingly carefree adolescent boy carries a monumental weight. As it stands, he could be the final hope of the world’s oldest monarchy.

Video by Mamamia

As the nephew of newly-instated Emperor Naruhito, Prince Hisahito is now one of only three people eligible to inherit Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne. Though the new Emperor has a daughter, women are precluded from ruling; a law that automatically disqualifies 13 of the 18 members of the country’s ancient Imperial family.

The alternatives are Emperor Naruhito’s uncle, 83-year-old Prince Hatachi, and brother Crown Prince Fumihito, 53, neither of whom have sons. The continuation of this monarchy, which dates back to 660BC, therefore currently relies entirely on little Prince Hisahito one day producing a male heir. If not, he could go down in history as the last Emperor of Japan.

But there’s another option…

While the Emperor has no political power in Japan, the title holds deep symbolic and cultural significance, which stands to be lost without intervention.

The answer, according to some, is simple.

The looming succession crisis has promoted calls for urgent changes to Japanese law that would allow women to assume the throne. And according to a 2018 poll conducted by Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, nearly two-thirds of citizens are in favour.

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After all, the patriarchal succession law is relatively recent feature of the monarchy’s two-millennia history. It was first introduced in 1869 as part of the Meiji Constitution and was reinforced by the 1947 rewritten constitution of Japan.

Prior to that there had been eight Japanese Empresses – the last of which reigned from 1762 to 1771, until her nephew was old enough to take her place.

Also being debated as the Imperial family dwindles is the need for changes to the law that requires royals to renounce their titles if they marry a commoner.

Just last year, Princess Ayako relinquished her role to marry a shipping company employee, following in the footsteps of her older sister Noriko who gave up her title to marry the son of a Shinto priest back in 2014.

Former Princesses Ayako and Noriko renounced their titles for love. Images: Getty.

And there was almost another. In 2018, Princess Mako - one of Prince Hisahito's two older sisters - was faced with a similar prospect after she announced she intended to marry to her college sweetheart, paralegal Kei Komuro. Just weeks later, the engagement was postponed, as the Princess declared: “I wish to think about marriage more deeply and concretely."

These two laws combined could spell doom for the future of the Chrysanthemum Throne, and create barely imaginable pressure for young Prince Hisahito... not to mention his future spouse. As professor of Japanese history at Shizuoka University of Welfare, Yuji Otabe, asked AFP, with that kind of responsibility, "Who would want to marry him?"

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