No Empress for Japan?
The Japanese Monarchy and Its Law of Succession
by Chiara Beekvelt
It was a cute sight when, during the visit of Japan´s crown prince and princess to The Netherlands in summer 2006, their little daughter Aiko was photographed along with the eldest child of Prince Willem-Alexander, Princess Amalia. The outgoing blonde princess and the more serious-looking black-haired one in their powder-blue dresses charmed the public. Watchers who were not too familiar with Japanese succession laws would even remark how nice it would be for these two to become friends as they had so much in common: both daughters of a crown prince and both second in line to the throne. And even if those watchers were, in fact, wrong, they could rather easily have been right: although women cannot ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne, moves had been made a year earlier to change the Japanese succession law and enable women to become empress. Had those plans been carried through, the position of the two little princesses would, in fact, have been the same.
Male heir wanted
What had prevented the law being changed? To understand that, one has to know why it had even been considered to let women ascend the throne in the first place. The reason for this was not some theoretical craving for modernization or a wish to keep the monarchy in harmony with the changing social values and attitudes of Japanese commoners. The initiative to amend the law had, in contrast, come out of sheer necessity: since the birth of Prince Akishino, the second son of Emperor Akihito, in 1965, no son had been born into the imperial family. Although there were plenty of princesses, there was no male heir in the second generation after Akihito and there was not much hope left that one would be born in the near future.
Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako had remained childless for more than eight years after their marriage in June 1993. Finally, in December 2001, a daughter was born to them whom the overjoyed parents called Aiko. (The name is written with kanji character for “love” and “child” and means “a person who loves others.”) But after a short break, the pressure on the crown princess to produce a male heir (that had been upon her for years already before Aiko´s birth) increased again. In summer 2003, Toshio Yuasa, grand steward of the IHA (Imperial Household Agency) publicly admonished the crown couple: “Frankly speaking, […] I want them to have another child.” In December of the same year, shortly after Princess Masako had left the hospital where she had been treated for shingles (an illness that is usually attributed to stress), the grand steward let everybody know that he had given up on her and was now setting his hopes on her sister-in-law, Princess Kiko, and her husband Prince Akishino. In a press conference, Yuasa told the media: “Out of consideration for the well-being of the imperial household, I would strongly hope for their third child.” The couple had already two daughters, aged 12 and 9 at the time, and until then, nobody had expected them to have another child.
Koizumi´s attempt to change the succession law
Accordingly, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced that he was personally in favour of a change in the right of succession. A 10-member advisory council was set up in late 2004 to advise the Prime Minister on revising the Imperial House Law. In November 2005, it produced a report recommending that female emperors and their descendants be allowed to ascend the throne, and the emperor’s eldest child, regardless of sex, should be given “priority as the imperial heir.” It also recommended that imperial princesses who marry commoners would not have to leave the imperial family and become commoners. (Princess Sayako, the present emperor´s only daughter did that in 2005. She is now plain Mrs Kuroda.) Instead, princesses should remain in the imperial family and their husbands join it and become imperial princes. The panel´s head, Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, a former University of Tokyo president, informed the public: “There are no proper historical documents that clearly explain why the male line has been favored.”
In spite of conservatives fiercely denouncing the document, Koizumi told the new session of Parliament on January 20, 2006 that he would submit a bill to open the way for female monarchs and demonstrated during the following days that he would stand firm in his determination to pass the legislation. But then, on February 7, it was suddenly announced that 39-year-old Princess Kiko was six weeks pregnant. One day later, a downbeat Koizumi indicated that the revisions would be shelved, telling Parliament: “We should take our time to carefully discuss the matter.”
It is highly remarkable, when taking a look at this course of events, that imperial pregnancies are usually not made public before the third month (as the probability of a miscarriage is considerably reduced after that time). There is only one plausible reason why this news was leaked so quickly by the IHA and the parents-to-be: had they waited until the law had passed the Diet, Princess Aiko would have been second in line after her father and neither Prince Akishino nor his offspring, male and female alike, would have had much of a chance left to ever ascend the throne. However, on 6 September 2006 Prince Hisahito was born, and two weeks after his birth, Shinzō Abe succeeded Koizumi as Prime Minister. Being more conservative than Koizumi, Abe shelved the recommendations of the advisory panel, and the prospect of reigning empresses or a female line for the time disappeared.
Western spectators who are not familiar with the issue often ask why, in a time when many European monarchies have changed the succession laws in order to let the eldest child, regardless of sex, succeed, it still seems to be such a problem in Japan to allow a woman to accede to the throne, even if the monarchy is in danger of dying out. They also ask if all Japanese agree in this matter, and if so, how this can be explained, given the fact that Article 14 of the 1947 constitution of Japan says that “there shall be no discrimination because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”
An empress to symbolize social changes in Japan?
First, one would have to mention that there are indeed many Japanese who are still in favour of a change, probably partly because it would solve the succession crisis of Japan´s monarchy that has only been postponed by the birth of Prince Hisahito. (As of now, there is but this one male heir whereas plenty of princesses would be available to ensure the continuity of the monarchy, were they given the right to ascend.) I will also add that there are people in Japan who advocate the change not only for pragmatic reasons, but also because of the positive impact it might have on Japan´s society.
In fact, not everybody was exactly happy when the plans to amend the succession law were shelved. Just a few days after Princess Kiko´s pregnancy was announced, a Japan Times editorial complained: “No wonder the Crown Princess gets depressed. The spectacle of the chasm between the Imperial family and the 21st century has long been enough to depress anyone. But then, just when the princess must have thought the gap might be closing a bit, given the prime minister’s efforts to win the right of succession for the family’s female members, along comes an unexpected pregnancy to send everything back to square one.” The newspaper went on by asking: “Whatever happened to the idea that girls are just as special, just as valued, as boys? How do you explain why some people think being a girl is such a crippling defect it automatically disqualifies you from a job that carries no power anyway?” Mikiyo Kano, a professor of women’s history at Keiwa College, commented: “I think the male succession system in the imperial family has led to the discrimination and oppression of women in general in Japan.” Statistics show, in fact, that Japanese women trail their U.S. and European counterparts in the quest for equality. In the workplace, women in Japan are not represented equally with men. In 2011, only 8% of businesses in Japan had women in senior management positions (well below the global average of 20%). Akiko Igarashi, a public relations representative, who succeeded in one of the few careers open to women, told the Chicago Tribune: “In status, in promotions, in salaries – once you start going up the ladder, it’s all men.” In 2005, women in full-time jobs only earned 67% of what men earned and more than 50% of women were being shunted to part-time jobs where pay, benefits and job security are low. The humble status of Japan´s women is evident not only in the workplace. For example, during divorces in some families, it is not unusual for a father to fight for custody of his sons, but not his daughters. Time spent on housework and child care by Japanese men is at the lowest level on a global basis.
Although all these phenomena seem to reflect Japanese traditions, especially the prevailing sentiment of the 19th century Meiji era, “danson johi” (respecting males and despising females), not everybody in Japan unresistingly accepts them. Younger women, in particular, are rebelling by delaying childbirth and having fewer children. As a result, the country´s population started shrinking in 2005, and the economy is facing labor shortages in some key sectors such as engineering and research. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Japan´s Temple University, opines that “the nation has not fully realised how much of its talent it is squandering for the sake of a dysfunctional patriarchy.” Ken Ruoff, assistant professor of Japanese history at Portland State University in Oregon, elaborates: “I think it [the change of succession laws] has the potential to confront male chauvinists in Japan who think that women can only do certain roles, because they’re going to be faced with having a national symbol who’s a woman. I think it will be a bit more difficult for the chauvinist line to hold – everything from jokes to the treatment of women.”
Along with the idea of gender equality, there are still other reasons that motivate some Japanese to advocate the case for a reigning empress. Chieko Kanatani, head of the advocacy group Women and Work Research Center in Tokyo, contends that “a female emperor could help improve the image of the imperial family and the country as a whole in neighboring countries where the emperor has tended to take on the image of the source of aggression during World War II.” Mamiku Shomitsu, a young woman living in Tokyo, told a BBC reporter after Hisahitos´s birth: “Many people would like Crown Princess Masako’s daughter to be empress. Women should be able to accede to the throne like in Britain.” It is probably more than just a coincidence that, in this instance, Shomitsu is calling Princess Aiko “Crown Princess Masako’s daughter”. Feminist Chieko Akaishi explained to the global news agency IPS: “There is huge sympathy, especially among women, for Princess Aiko who was born after her mother battled infertility and intense pressure to produce a son that later led her to fall into a severe depression. Naturally, they support female ascendancy as a means of expressing their support for Princess Masako and her husband.” Social commentator Mariko Fujirawa asked: “Why not give them the same options as any other family? Other families can adopt, or their daughter’s husbands can take their new wife’s family name, or they simply abandon the aspiration for an unbroken male blood line. To ask them to go on producing male heirs is unrealistic.” A Japanese blogger also drew parallels between the position of women in the imperial family and of Japanese women in general. Commenting on Princess Masako´s looks on the trip of the Crown Prince family to The Netherlands, she wrote: “The holiday pictures proved that the princess is suffering serious depression in Japan, and looked much happier in overseas. This is because of the burden in the monarchy system… A similar burden also exists for all Japanese women, in general.”
Male line of succession unbroken for more than a thousand years
Traditionalists would counter that the long unbroken line of male succession in the Japanese history is unprecedented and would have to be preserved because of its uniqueness. Influential former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone defended “the principle of the male-line tradition that has been adhered to for well over 1,000 years,” claiming that “intellectuals in foreign countries pay respect and give weight to this particular fact as one of the world’s truly unique imperial systems.” Sure enough, although the (still) official genealogy of the imperial house, which says that the first tenno, Jimmu, founded the monarchy in 660 B.C., is, historically speaking, incorrect – the first 10 to 15 emperors listed in ancient histories are clearly legendary characters – the fact still remains that according to modern historians the imperial line can be traced back around 1400 years.
The Japanese imperial dynasty is the oldest in the world. There were two means that helped to maintain it for such a long time: the device of concubinage and collateral families. In many cases, the first instrument was as effective as it was necessary: the father of present Emperor Akihito, Emperor Hirohito, was, in fact, the son of his father´s legal spouse, but the mothers of the last seven of his predecessors had been concubines. However, concubines could not always offer a solution (for example, if the emperor was sterile or died as a child). Accordingly, an emperor’s son who was not destined to succeed him was sometimes established as the head of a collateral princely family. He and his heirs would carry the title of imperial prince and would have the right to ascend the throne if the main line failed to produce an heir. At present, the Japanese monarchy is deprived of both means that traditionally guaranteed its continuity: for obvious reasons, concubines cannot be the solution nowadays (although a cousin of the present emperor, Prince Tomohito, actually and famously proposed it), and the collateral princely families, of which there were still several left at the end of World War II, were reduced to commoner status by the Imperial House Law of 1947.
Japan´s reigning empresses
Usually, a third means is mentioned that would traditionally have served to ensure continuity of the succession: to allow a woman, the daughter of an emperor, to ascend the throne. This possibility of women inheriting was abolished during the Meiji Restoration at the end of the 19th century, after a fierce discussion. While those who advocated the preservation of the possibility for women to ascend the throne claimed that excluding women from imperial rule went against the classical basis of the country, “exclusionists” would downplay the importance of the historical role of Japan´s eight reigning empresses by asserting that they had been mere “stop-gap” rulers who abdicated once a suitable male heir came of age. However, according to Hitomi Tonomura, a historian of the premodern period who teaches at the University of Michigan, “this one-dimensional characterization does not hold up against the evidence, and reflects the thinkers’ own understanding of gender relations rather than the actual historical sources.” Tonomura states that male candidates were available in most cases when female emperors took office. For example, Suiko, the first of the six ancient female emperors, was enthroned in 592 at 39 years of age. Her nephew, Prince Umayado (later called Shotoku), was 18 when she ascended the throne, a male mature candidate of imperial descent. As Tonomura states: “If gender was the primary factor in the selection of an emperor, the choice of Suiko makes no sense.” Suiko never abdicated (as later Japanese tennos often used to do) and died at the age of 75, after reigning for 36 years.
While there were often male heirs available when women took the throne, it also happened in later centuries that at times when there actually was a dearth of male heirs and the installation of an “intermediary” figure would have been useful, no woman was put on the throne. Tonomura explains this on the basis of the social changes that took place in the 7th and 8th centuries. The period of the six early female rulers, “170 years during which women frequently took the helm,” was “the monumental period of Japan’s state-building.” Each reign, whether male or female, “resulted from complex power relations among the members of the imperial and ministerial families.” Royal qualifications “derived just as much from the mother as from the father, and there was no established rule of patrilineal succession before the end of the eighth century.” This reflected the ways of Japan´s contemporary elites, among whom bilateral descent was also the custom at the time. But after that period, from 770 until 1630, no woman ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne. Tonomura attributes the dearth of female emperors after 770 to “a larger rhythm of social transformation—the diminishment of women’s level of economic and familial independence between 592 and 770. Women became absorbed into male-centered systems of residency, economy, and politics, and ceased to live in their own quarters. Society gradually moved from bilateral descent toward patrilineal descent.” That means that the imperial institution and its rules kept reflecting the changing customs of the society of which it was a part. Female rule “ended as society moved toward increasingly male-centered structures and values, which female emperors themselves had helped to institute.”
Although, as we have seen, traditionalists of the Meiji era have propagated an interpretation of the role of reigning empresses that neglects several of the historically known facts, it still remains true that the women on the Chrysanthemum Throne were either virgins or widows, and that none of them was married while she occupied the throne. It also is true that none of them passed the throne on to their children, except if the children´s father was an imperial prince. Thus, descent by the male line was, in fact, maintained throughout. This also explains why traditionalists would not mind so much if Aiko ascended the throne but would clearly object to her passing on the throne to her children by a commoner husband. As former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma put it: “If Princess Aiko becomes the reigning Empress, and gets involved with a blue-eyed foreigner while studying abroad and marries him, their child may be the Emperor. We should never let that happen.”
Of course, besides demonstrating a dislike of welcoming male commoners into the imperial family, Hiranuma´s statement is also characterized by the political slogan “Hakkō ichiu” – “all the world under one roof” – the ideal that allegedly had been set up for the Japanese nation by the legendary first tenno Jimmu, the founder of the monarchy. “Hakkō ichiu” expresses the idea of Japanese racial superiority and orders the Japanese people to conquer the world in order to endow it with the supreme blessing of the unique Japanese national spirit that the tenno embodies.
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