Tokyo Despatch | International

A game of thrones rigged against women


Womenomics, the popular term for Japan’s efforts to bring more women into the workforce, clearly does not extend to the imperial throne. Women are barred from royal succession. Last year, the reigning Emperor, Akihito, requested permission to abdicate on the grounds of his ill-health and advancing age. In doing so, he presented Japan with a unique opportunity to change the laws governing imperial inheritance, including the possibility of allowing women to sit on the Chrysanthemum throne. However, the opportunity will likely be squandered given that the conservative government is against modifications to established procedures. Japan’s Constitution leaves matters of succession to an Imperial Household Law that is passed by Parliament. The current one has been in place since immediately after the Second World War and makes no provision for abdication. Emperor Akihito is 83 years old and has reigned for 28 years. He has been treated for prostate cancer and has also undergone heart surgery.

The consternation in government circles has to do with the fact that an abdication would allow for change, and to traditionalists the imperial throne is seen precisely as the nationalist bulwark against change. Japan’s is the oldest, continuous monarchy in the world. For centuries, the Emperor was deified as a demigod. Today, the role is purely ceremonial, but there is nonetheless a strong identification between the country and the Emperor. For those who oppose it, female succession will open a Pandora’s box that might threaten the entire imperial ideology. To admit the wrongness of male lineage could raise doubts about the rightness of a monarchy at all.

A government-appointed advisory panel is currently deliberating Akihito’s request. An interim report issued in January suggests that the Emperor will be allowed to step down — but only as a one-off exception, which would not apply to future rulers. While this is the speediest solution, it will fail to humanise the imperial system and also closes the door on discussion of female succession. The last time there was serious debate on ending primogeniture was under the government of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. At the time no male had been born into the imperial family for over four decades. Advisers to Mr. Koizumi recommended that women be given equal rights to inherit, but the debate was shelved when a male grandchild to Emperor Akihito, Prince Hisahito, was born in 2006.

Time for change

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is openly against the idea of allowing women to sit on the throne. To solve the problem of a lack of male heirs, he has suggested that branch lines of the imperial family be accorded a status that would allow distant male kin to gain the crown. Many Japanese women are not impressed. Miko Yamanouchi, a leading literary agent, believes it’s time for Japan to have women at the helm, on the throne and more broadly in business and politics.

Miho Tsukioka, a management consultant, agrees that women should inherit on the principle of equality. But she thinks the larger problem is that the imperial family “does not even have basic human rights or a minimal degree of freedom”. Indeed, the pressure to birth a son drove the current crown prince’s wife, Masako, into depression. The accession debate is a microcosm of a country, grappling with balancing tradition and modernity; confronting new realities like an ageing population and gender politics. How it is resolved could indicate how successful, or not, Japan will be in dealing with its varied and tough 21st century challenges.

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2019 12:28:10 PM |

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