Japan's succession drama puts future of world's oldest monarchy in doubt

Public feel 'sense of crisis' and politicians debate changing rules as Emperor has no male children and only three heirs

Photo collage of an old Japanese man pruning a bonsai tree. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako stand at the foot of the tree, stylised as small paper cut-outs. Potential heirs to the throne are represented in the tree's branches, while female members of Japan's royal family are scattered at the base of the bonsai pot, among pruned branches.
(Image credit: Illustration by Julia Wytrazek / Getty Images)

When Japan's Emperor Naruhito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in May 2019, after the abdication of his father, he vowed to bring the royal family into the modern age.

Five years later, the world's oldest continuing monarchy is grappling with a question as old as monarchy itself: succession. Under the Imperial Household Law of 1947, succession is limited to male heirs on the emperor's father's side (i.e. down the paternal line). Naruhito, the grandson of Japan's longest reigning emperor, Hirohito, has only a daughter with Empress Masako: 22-year-old Aiko, Princess Toshi.

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.