Japan’s “Princess Problem”
Conservatives Panic at the Prospect of Female-Headed Imperial Family Branches
Last Tuesday, the third of a series of expert hearings took place, concerning the issue of whether Japanese princesses should be allowed in the future to keep their titles and create new family branches when they marry. (Currently, the Imperial House Law stipulates that female members who marry commoners must abandon their imperial status.)
In two earlier meetings, four other experts had backed the idea of female-headed family branches. But as the experts at this latest hearing, journalist Yoshiko Sakurai and Nihon University law professor Akira Momochi, are well known for their nationalist views, it did not come as a surprise that they opposed the plan. Although Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura has made it clear that the issue of allowing a woman to get succession rights (for herself or for her children) would not even be discussed, conservatives still fear that, in the long run, the creation of female-headed branches of the imperial family might finally lead to a female-line emperor. As New York Times journalist Norimitsu Onishi explains, the “opposition to a female line is part of a larger nationalist movement that seeks a tougher stance against China and North Korea, presses aggressively for a revisionist history of Japan’s wartime past, and pushes the myth of Japanese racial exceptionalism. Indeed, many [who are opposed to a female line] are the same politicians, scholars and journalists who contend that the Nanking Massacre was vastly exaggerated, that Japan invaded continental Asia to liberate it and that Japan was tricked into war by the United States.” One of the experts who gave their opinions last Tuesday, Ms. Sakurai, is a well-known journalist and social critic in Japan, especially famous for her rightwing and sometimes ultra-nationalistic stance. She maintains that the Nanking Massacre never took place and that the so-called “comfort women” (who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II) were “not taken by force.”
Professor Momochi, the second expert of Tuesday’s hearing, was part of the minority that opposed an amendment of the Imperial House Law that then-prime minister Koizumi tried to realize back in 2006. At the time, there was no male heir in the youngest generation of the imperial family and Koizumi planned to pave the way for Princess Aiko, the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito, to become Japan´s ninth reigning empress. However, in September 2006, a male heir was finally born to the second son of Emperor Akihito, Prince Akishino, and Koizumi was succeeded by the conservative Shinzo Abe. As a result, the plan to change the succession law was shelved.
Last year, on October 5, Shingo Haketa, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency (IHA), visited Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (of the Democratic Party of Japan) at his office and told him it was a matter of urgency to enable female members of the imperial family to create family branches. Haketa explained that the IHA was concerned that it would become more and more difficult for the imperial family to perform its duties as the number of members decreased due to females losing their imperial status by marriage. Presently, Japan’s imperial family consists of 23 members, eight of whom are over the age of 60 and three of whom are children. Of the remaining 12, half are unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30. Should they get married in quick succession and leave the imperial family, their absence could severely hurt the family’s ability to meet all of its demands.
Following Haketa’s request to work on a solution to this problem, the government recently set up a panel of senior officials and advisors to draft a report on the proposed creation of female imperial branch households. The experts whose opinions were sought in the two hearings that took place in February and March backed the plans to let the princesses keep their status when they marry. It was only during the latest hearing on April 10 that the idea met with opposition. Both Ms. Sakurai and Professor Akira Momochi both expressed strong concern over the recent discussions and said that female imperial family members should not be allowed to retain their royal status upon marriage because, according to them, such a system could eventually break the centuries-long paternal lineage of imperial blood. However, both experts admitted that the shrinking number of imperial family members is a matter that needs to be dealt with urgently. To retain the male line of emperors, the two suggested revising the Imperial Household Law so that male descendants of former imperial families which renounced their royal status in 1947 be allowed to return to the imperial family.
For most of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) there were four imperial branch houses: the Fushimi, the Kan’in, the Arisugawa, and the Katsura households. If the main line failed to produce an heir, these cadet branches could provide a successor to the throne. However, not every prince born into these families would be allowed to keep his status and have a family of his own. Only one man, usually the eldest son, could hold the title at any one time. Non-heir sons in both the main Imperial House and the branch houses had two career options. They could “descend” to subject status with a noble title or enter the Buddhist priesthood as the head of a temple. Thus, the size of the imperial family was kept at a minimum. It was only with the Meiji Restoration, launched in 1868, that the number of imperial branch houses nearly tripled.
The Meiji Restoration was a chain of events that led to the defeat of the Tokugawa shogunate and restored imperial rule to Japan. Its supporters made the emperor and the imperial family the supreme symbol of legitimacy for the newly emerging order. It seemed logical to increase the number of collateral branches, which constituted the closest satellite to the imperial throne. Fortunately for the supporters of the monarchy, one of the princes from the collateral branches, Prince Fushimi Kuniye (1802-1875), happened to have 17 sons, most of whom became heads of the new founded imperial branch houses. The Fushimi-no-miya branch is the eldest of the collateral branches, having been founded in 1409 by a son of Emperor Sukō. On one hand that means that it is very old and venerable, but on the other hand it means that the descendants are but very remotely related to the modern emperors. By 1935, there were 11 collateral branches of the imperial family (in addition to the families of Emperor Showa’s three brothers), all of them descended from Prince Fushimi Kuniye. On 3 May 1947, the new constitution came into effect, designed to ensure universal equality under the law. The titles and prerogatives of the nobility were thus revoked, and the former elite became commoners like everybody else. Also, the 11 collateral branches lost their royal status.
At the hearing last Tuesday, Ms. Sakurai proposed to reinstate four of them. “There were too many, so they were cut back. Now we’re in the complete opposite position, why can’t we take the opposite measure?” she asked. However, for obvious economic reasons it is improbable that anybody would seriously consider reinstating the former imperial branches in their present form, even if only four of them. There is a second proposal, however, that seems at first glance more realistic: that the imperial family should adopt individuals from these branches to boost its size. Ms. Sakurai as well as professor Momochi mentioned this possibility at last Tuesday´s hearing.
Among East Asian societies, Japan is known for its indiscriminate practice of adoption compared with China and Korea, for example, where more stringent rules and prohibitions are imposed. Traditionally, all social classes in Japan used the instrument of adoption to continue the family line. However, upper-class Japanese seem to have resorted to adoption more than their lower-class counterparts. An informant from the former nobility told Japanese-born anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra: “In our [noble] circle there is no resistance to being adopted as there is in the world outside, since almost everybody here becomes adopted. My [natal] house has continued fourteen generations, but more than half of those generations were headed by adopted sons.”
The nobility used to have recourse to this measure not only if there was a lack of natural sons but also if the sons born to the house were, for one reason or other, not considered fit to be heirs. There were several circumstances by which adoption was facilitated. First, there were few restrictions on who could be adopted. The adoptee could be an outsider as well as a close kinsman. If he were related to the adopting family, a sister’s son or daughter’s son was just as acceptable as a brother’s son, a younger brother could be adopted as a son, or a family with a daughter but no son could adopt a son-in-law. Successors were not necessarily adopted as children; sometimes a family decided to adopt a grown man or even a married couple. The only condition that was observed in nearly all cases bore a social character: successional adoptions almost always came from within the nobility. The adopted son could be “anybody,” but “of course, he must be the son of a nobleman.” There was a sound practical reason for this rule. One of her informants told Professor Lebra: “There wasn’t much variation in the career [of nobles] anyway. Everyone would end up as a member of the House of Peers, and the like.” He would thus joke with those of his Gakushuin classmates who were also adopted, saying that one’s adoptive house could well have been another’s. This means that if a noble family adopted the son of another noble family, they could rely on him to already know “the basics” of noble life and on his being socialized in a way that would enable him to adjust to and even come to identify himself with his new family in a relatively short time.
The second instance that served to facilitate adoption was that according to Japanese tradition, only one son could become successor while all other children, sons as well as daughters, had to leave the family. Whereas a daughter was expected to marry out, a nonsuccessor son from the nobility had several options that were similar to those of sons from the imperial family mentioned above. (1) He could set up his own house independently by giving up his noble status and becoming a commoner (whereas an imperial prince would “only” descend so far as to become a noble). In some cases there was an opportunity for a young nobleman that was very rarely offered to imperial princes: to become the head of a collateral branch of his natal family. But by doing this, a younger brother had to prolong his subordination to his elder brother and head of the main house and forego autonomy for good. (2) He could become a Buddhist monk. Again, the option is not unlike that offered to an imperial prince but has a more modest character. A son of the emperor entering the Buddhist priesthood would become the head of a temple that was specially designed to accommodate imperial offspring; a younger son of a noble would not aspire to such an exalted position. (3) Finally, he might be adopted by another noble house as its successor. In most cases, adoption was clearly the best deal. As a consequence, there usually was an ample supply of younger sons from whom a candidate for adoption might be chosen.
There is a third circumstance still to be mentioned that was conducive to the practice of adoption. Unlike in Japanese commoner families, where there was usually a strong emotional bond between a mother and her children (the father as a rule remained more of a distant figure), in noble families the relationships between children and both their parents were very formal. The reason for this was that custom required the children not to be raised by their parents, but instead to be raised either in foster families or, if they lived with their real parents, by personal servants (otsuki). Otsuki servants provided the child with personal warmth, guidance, nurturing, and a feeling of kinship, in compensation for the relative distance and aloofness of the parents. Informants from the former nobility told Professor Lebra: “We were most scared of mother, but never cried for her when she went out. It was when the servants went home on holidays that we cried and screamed.” “If I had had to choose [between mother and otsuki] I would have sided with my otsuki.” “When my mother died I did not cry, but when my otsuki passed away I did.” As a consequence, adoption was in no way seen as a means to satisfy personal needs of bonding and intimacy. If there was no special emotional bond between adopting parents and adoptee, this would not be experienced as a lack, as there was also no particular bond between parents and their natural children. This circumstance clearly served to further remove any obstacles to adoption on the personal and emotional level.
For the imperial family, adoption was not as trouble-free as for the nobility, mainly because a potential adoptee would have to be related by blood, however remotely, and to be a descendant in the male line from one of the former emperors. But apart from this condition, the fact that relationships between imperial family members bore a very formal character played an important role in facilitating adoption as an instrument to ensure the succession. Like in noble families, children, especially successor sons, would often be raised by foster families, and where that was not the case, personal servants would take over.
Emperor Hirohito, for example, at the age of two months, was handed over to the elderly Count Sumiyoshi Kawamura, a former admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy, and his wife Countess Haruko. Kawamura had been very hesitant to accept this task, but at last promised to do his “duty.” One year later, Hirohito´s younger brother Yasuhito (later Chichibu) was born and joined him at the old admiral´s home. The two princes passed their first years in an atmosphere that was as homespun as it was ascetic. Kawamura´s favoured method of disciplining the often mischievous Hirohito was to threaten to declare Prince Chichibu the “senior” prince in the house. When Hirohito was only three years old, the admiral died at age 67. Later, from the age of seven, Hirohito´s education was supervised by the headmaster of the Peers School, General Maresuke Nogi, a popular national hero who would become one of the major influences on Hirohito’s life. When Hirohito was eleven, his grandfather, the Meiji Emperor died. On the day of the Emperor’s funeral, as the guns marking the departure of his coffin were fired from the imperial palace, Count Nogi sliced open his abdomen and his wife plunged a dagger into her throat in the traditional precept of Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku, by which the couple followed the Emperor into death.
It is this habit of having imperial children raised by people other than their natural parents, however, that has changed radically in the post-war era. The extent of the change becomes clear when we consider the obvious solution for a sonless crown prince like Prince Naruhito 150 years ago: he would have adopted either his little nephew or his younger brother. From a present-day perspective, it would seem absurd for the crown prince to adopt his brother, who is but 5 years his junior, and barbarian to take little Hisahito away from his natural parents just because his uncle happens to need a successor. But this only serves to demonstrate what a radical change in values has taken place since the 19th century. Not even ultraconservatives propose this solution. Instead, some of them suggest that the junior branches of the imperial family who have “but” female offspring, like the Mikasa and Takamado families (or even the bachelor Prince Katsura), should adopt male individuals (probably adults) from the former branches. While this solution would certainly have the advantage that no small child would have to be taken away from his parents in order to serve the highest good of the monarchy, it still has to remain very doubtful if a man who has been raised as a commoner and who had no close personal ties with his adopting family would ever be up to the difficult task of being a Japanese royal.
The emperor as well as his two sons have married women from commoner families. In the last two generations of the imperial family, imperial children have been raised, although with support from imperial staff, mainly by their natural parents. Although there is no doubt that the family appreciates this state of things, this is not just a matter of personal preference of imperial family members. The imperial family is nowadays perceived by the public as a family in the commoner sense, with close ties, intimate knowledge of each other, and an emotional bond that cannot be fully described by the terms of loyalty and filial piety, but rather by the words “love,” “warmth,” and “tenderness.” In fact, this has grown to be an important part of their public image, and even occasional rumours about quarrels in the imperial family so far rather seem to serve to further humanize them. As anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra puts it: “In the television age, the emperor appears to viewers relaxing in their living rooms foremost as a happy husband and father, a man totally devoid of the mystique surrounding the prewar throne.” Of course, in spite of this “homely” aspect of their image, there is another important role Japan´s royals have to play: they are living this seemingly private family life under constant public observation. And the needs of their public audience are somewhat contradictory: on one hand commoners want to be able to emotionally relate to their royals, on the other hand they expect them to be “special.”
While the imperial princesses have grown up in this atmosphere of “public family life” and have watched their parents observing all the little do’s and don’t's of a royal who is required to hit the sensitive balance between an excess of aloofness on one hand and a lack of dignity on the other, a commoner, even if he comes from a former collateral branch of the imperial family, can hardly ever acquire that innate knowledge of what is required of him. In fact, such an adoptee would not even meet the one condition that was imposed in former times even on adoption candidates for the nobility: he does not come from the same social class. As a consequence, he could hardly be expected to ever feel really at home in the position that has been granted him. Even if traditional knowledge about imperial life had been handed down in his family to the present generation, there is no doubt that this would always be information about pre-war imperial life which could hardly be of much value for him, considering how much the image and lifestyle of Japan’s royalty has changed since the war.
All things considered, one would have to conclude that those who propose adoption as a solution to the present crisis of the imperial family, willfully ignore the fact that the circumstances under which, in the past, this instrument did indeed prove useful and effective, have radically changed. Not only have the values and lifestyle of Japanese commoners undergone a fundamental transformation during the last two centuries, in particular, since the end of the war, but the same is also true for the emperor and his family. One cannot help feeling that it says a lot that when Shingo Haketa, grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, visited Prime Minister Noda in October of last year, he did not just tell him to somehow solve the problem of the decreasing number of imperial family members, but explicity asked him to let the princesses remain in the family and let them create family branches of their own.
The Imperial Household Agency is notorious for its conservative views and politics, but, of course, its most important concern will always consist of protecting and preserving the survival of the imperial family. If even they go so far as to maintain that the support of the princesses is indispensable for the monarchy, maybe we had better believe them.
I am greatly indebted to Takie Sugiyama Lebra, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology of the University of Hawaii, for her book Above the Clouds – Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility. The information it provides has been invaluable for the writing of this blog.
Collage by Kelly Lacroix, used with permission.
New Year greeting 2011 by Wikimedia Commons member Kounosu, used under Creative Commons licence.
Other photos, public domain.
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