TV & Radio
COMMENT / JAPAN
The Imperial women of Japan
Japan's future seems inextricably linked with the future of all women in Japan, not just royalty
By JEFF KINGSTON - Bangkok Post 2005/11/19
It is hard to overstate the degree of change and turmoil in Japan's Imperial Household. Consider in the past year alone the Crown Prince has publicly apologised for standing up for his wife; Princess Nori just married a commoner; and the government is preparing legislation to allow female succession to the throne. As elsewhere in Japan, women are threatening patriarchy. The repercussions, actual and potential, are enormous, stirring a predictable backlash while pointing to how much more needs to be done in a nation that stands at 69 in the global ranking of women's status.
On Nov 15 Princess Nori, 36, married a commoner, something that has not happened in the emperor's immediate family for 45 years. Under the current Imperial Household Law, once she marries she must relinquish her royal status. In consolation, she received a lump sum payment of $1.3 million (53.6 million baht) in taxpayer funds. However, now she must adjust to life as a commoner, starting with living in a rented 50m2 apartment and confronting the normal challenges of being a daughter-in-law. She now has a family name - the imperial family does not - and will henceforth be known as Sayako Kuroda. Her forty year-old husband attended the same university as she and is a friend of her older brother Prince Akishino. She is popular with the public and admired for being soft-spoken, kind and modest. She will give up her 13 year career of ornithology research on the kingfisher and devote herself to household duties. According to the tabloids she has lots to learn; she is said to have asked a friend what to do when ones' hands get full while shopping at a market, apparently not knowing there are shopping trolleys!
On the morning of the wedding as I walked my dogs I met an elderly neighbour bubbling with excitement as she rushed home to see the television coverage. A street sweeper regaled me with stories about the couple and shared his concerns about their new life. He also muttered about her golden handshake. In the park everyone I met spoke about the nuptial. Nobody knew or seemed to care that President Bush was arriving later that day.
The wedding at the Imperial Hotel was a modest affair, reflecting the couples wishes to avoid the frenzy associated with royal weddings. But the large throng gathered across the street from the hotel jostled for a peek, waving frantically at passing limousines, snapping photos and exuding a celebratory mood as media helicopters swooped overhead. Visitors from London expressed wonder at how lax royal security was compared to what they are used to back home.
Later that night watching the news, I wondered if George Bush, or indeed any US president, had ever been quite so completely overshadowed and forgotten on an overseas trip. The marriage took up 40 minutes of the news, Mr Bush's arrival scarcely two. Perhaps given his woes and growing Japanese media irreverence towards him it was just as well.
While one princess became a commoner, the commoner who became a princess has drawn far more extensive media coverage. Crown Princess Masako has been battling depression and largely withdrawn from public duties since late in 2003. Life in the goldfish bowl has been difficult, especially because the media has obsessively covered the lack of a male heir. Aiko, the royal couple's adorable three-year old girl, has captured the public's heart with her antics and winning smile, but so far there is no son. Princess Masako's depression is attributed to intrusive media scrutiny and pressures from the Imperial Household Agency to follow their carefully crafted script. The transformation of the smiling, confident, trilingual career track Foreign Ministry official into a forlorn recluse has held up a discouraging mirror for society. She may have hoped to serve as an international ambassador, but instead has found that her talents are overlooked and under used. Working women all over Japan know what she is going through and this is not a healthy sign.
There is considerable public sympathy for Princess Masako and her mother-in-law, also a commoner, knows better than anyone what an impossible position she is in. At one point the Empress became so distraught in 1993 that she lost her voice for several months.
To his credit, in May 2004 Crown Prince Naruhito told journalists that Princess Masako had not accompanied him to Europe because she was ill, obliquely blaming officials of the Imperial Household Agency for denying his wife's career and personality. This heartfelt anguish over his wife's depression reportedly caused a rift within the Imperial family, prompting a rebuke from the Emperor. The stern message was clear: We dont wash our dirty linen in public. When in Japan don't do as they do in the UK. This past winter the Crown Prince apologised for his remarks, but his wife remains traumatised by the ordeal of being a talented woman trapped in patriarchal traditions and expectations. It is telling that in 21st century Japan, a woman is still found wanting for not giving birth to a son.
Who will be next in line to succeed Princess Masako's husband? The lack of a male heir has triggered considerable anxiety in the Imperial Household Agency. With the Imperial line at stake, radical measures are being considered. Based on recommendations from an advisory panel, the government plans to introduce legislation next year that will allow for female succession to the throne. Certainly there are opponents to this proposed change. They call for a return to the concubine system that was abandoned by Emperor Showa (1926-89), noting that his two predecessors were sons of concubines. Others propose adoption or reviving the pre-war aristocracy to create a larger pool of candidates. But the public overwhelmingly - some 80 per cent - approves of Princess Aiko becoming empress. Laws and traditional rites will be pragmatically adjusted to make this possible. As the head priest of Shinto there are fertility rituals that involve the emperor with female deities and otherwise assume a patriarchal presence, but there have been eight empresses over the centuries and the deities and rituals seem no worse for the experience.
It is not yet clear if the new legislation will permit the first born regardless of gender to assume the throne or if women will only be granted the right of succession when there is no male heir. The second option would be consistent with the low status enjoyed by women in Japan, and a further sign that the nation has not fully realised how much of its talent it is squandering for the sake of a dysfunctional patriarchy. In this century, as fare women so fares Japan. It is not encouraging that women in full-time jobs only earn 67 per cent of what men earn and that more than 50 per cent of women are being shunted to non-standard job opportunities where pay, benefits, training and job security are low. The glass ceiling offers further discouragement as women account for only nine per cent of corporate managers compared to 30 per cent in the UK and 45 per cent in the US. There are a lot of women in Japan who want to balance family and work life but find it impossible to do so. Especially given that men do little around the home. Given Japan's looming labour shortage and demographic time bomb, addressing this problem is imperative. By the time Princess Aiko ascends to the throne, how well Japan copes with improving the status of women will determine the nation's fate.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian studies, Temple University, Japan.