An Empress of Japan? New Poll Shows a Majority Support It

An Empress of Japan? New Poll Shows a Majority Support It

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Female emperors of Japan
Picture: Canva; Wikipedia (various)
Will the next emperor of Japan be an empress? A new poll shows a clear majority support it - but there are obstacles.

Fears for the crumbling stability of the imperial line have been on the rise for decades. As it stands now, only male heirs of the direct imperial patrilineal line can ascend the throne. This is why Emperor Naruhito’s nephew Prince Hisahito is next in line after his father, despite Princess Aiko, the emperor’s daughter, technically holding a stronger claim to the throne.

However, most of the general public is behind the idea of having a female emperor and revising the law. In a recent Mainichi Shinbun national opinion poll, 81% supported a woman on the throne. So what’s holding up the Diet, which oversees revisions to the Imperial Household Law, from making it so?

Slowly pushing women out

Empress
Picture: ジョウモン / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The concept of a female emperor is not a novel idea in Japan. Indeed, eight women have sat on the throne, and the imperial family claims the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu as their progenitor.

Most ascended to the throne during fractious or politically unstable times. Emperor Suiko, the first recorded woman to bear that title, replaced Emperor Sushun following his assassination by the Soga Clan in 592. Emperor Genmei sat the throne until she was succeeded by her daughter Emperor Gensho. The last female emperor Go-Sakuramachi ruled during the late Edo period until abdicating to her predecessor’s designated heir.

For centuries, heirs from both imperial patrilineal and matrilineal bloodlines received equal importance. But rising patriarchal values exemplified by danson johi (男尊女卑; respect for men, disdain for women) eventually doomed that tradition. During the Meiji period, lawmakers argued over whether to include the matrilineal bloodlines and female heirs in the Imperial Household Law. Alas, pro-patriarchy lawmakers headed by statesman Inoue Kowashi won out, and the 1889 establishment of the Imperial Household Law designated only male heirs from the male line could sit on the throne.

Revisions to that law in 1947 went even further. Lawmakers cut out collateral bloodlines in favor of male heirs from the direct imperial line. However, as decades passed without a male heir, the fears of those pro-female lawmakers in 1889 came to fruition. The public also began warming up to allowing women to ascend the throne.

The same year Princess Aiko was born, 55.2% supported the idea of a female emperor in a November 2001 survey by Jiji Press, the highest percentage since surveys began in 1996. 49.2% also approved amending the law to allow female successors, with less than 10% against revisions.

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Princess Aiko as emperor?

Princess Aiko (Source: Wikipedia)

The Diet established a focus group in 2005 to seriously discuss the question of succession. However, the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006 stalled discussions on amendments, as did the 2020 pandemic. However, Prime Minister Kishida formed another focus group in October 2023 to tackle the issue.

The emperor’s youngest brother Prince Akishino is heir presumptive, but the line is still in jeopardy with only Prince Hisahito as the current generation’s heir. In a 2024 poll, 72% voiced concerns over a stable succession, with 90% approving a female emperor. When asked their reasoning, 50% stated that gender has nothing to do with the role of emperor.

Organizations like “Princess Aiko for Emperor” (愛子さまを皇太子に) champion revisions to the Imperial Household Law to allow women to hold the throne, moving away from outdated patriarchal views and returning to the historical norm. Its progressive stance is a stark contrast to the beliefs of its president, right-winger Kobayashi Yoshinori, most known for his controversial political manga Gōmanism Sengen.

Yet the group drew hundreds of attendees, including academics and former Diet members, to its 2023 symposium in Tokyo. One of the debates touched on ending the practice of women revoking their imperial status upon marriage. In another debate, a main sticking point was permitting matrilineal succession along with female heirs, something conservatives seem loathe to do.

Takamori Akinori, an academic researcher of the Imperial Household and a member of Kobayashi’s group, believes the continued support of male heirs only upholds male chauvinism and defies Japan’s true traditions. “We must face that this contempt for women, so far removed from actual tradition, is at the heart of the Imperial Household’s crisis,” he says.

If not now, when?

If revisions ever moved forward, Princess Aiko would be next in line, followed by Prince Akishino, his daughter Princess Kako, and Prince Hisahito. The Diet already added an amendment to allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate the throne to his eldest son in 2019, so clearly change is possible. But will conservatives and sexism continue to hinder progress towards a future with a woman on the throne?

Sources

女性天皇「賛成」81% 毎日新聞世論調査. Mainichi Shinbun

Japan’s Female Emperors. Nippon

「女性天皇」についての世論調査| 中央調査報 | 中央調査社. Chuo Research Services

皇位継承に「危機感」72% 女性天皇容認は90%. Tokyo Web

「愛子さまを皇太子に」と訴えるイベント開催:女性天皇への道は開けるか. Nippon

日本本来の皇位継承は男系も女系も容認の「双系」:動き出した女性天皇論議. Nippon

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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