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Imperial Family/ Uncharted terrain:Those who do not want females or their descendants to become emperor feel stymied.
By TARO KARASAKI and YU YOSHITAKE
Staff Writers - IHT/Asahi
Princess Aiko digs out a sweet potato with her mother, Crown Princess Masako, at Togu Palace in November.Aiko will be second in line for the Chrysanthemum throne if a revision of the Imperial House Law is approved to allow a female emperor. / Imperial Household Agency
This is the first in a series on issues and topics facing the imperial family.
Kentaro Sano, a Kochi University assistant professor, knows from experience the uphill battle facing opponents of government moves to allow females and their descendants to ascend the Chrysanthemum throne.
Students of Sano's intercultural studies class once decided to hold a debate over the question: Should Japan be ready to embrace a female emperor?
The debate never got off the ground.
"Nobody wanted to take on the role of arguing against the idea of females and their descendants ascending," said Sano, who uses debate as an educational tool. "Whenever somebody tried to present an argument to oppose a female emperor by citing such reasons as tradition and capability, it got rejected for being too demeaning to women."
That was four years ago. But today, the same sentiments that felled the debate are plaguing scholars, lawmakers and others trying to build momentum to block Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's plans to submit a bill to revise the Imperial House Law in the regular Diet session scheduled to start in January.
If the Diet approves the proposed revisions, 4-year-old Princess Aiko, the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, will be eligible to become Japan's first female emperor since the 18th century. There have been eight female emperors in the nation's history, but they never gave birth to heirs, so the throne always returned to an unbroken male line.
The bill will be based on recommendations by Koizumi's advisory panel on imperial succession, which proposed in November that women and their descendants be allowed to become emperor, breaking a male-lineage tradition said to date back to mythical times.
The panel was set up because no boy has been born into the imperial family in 40 years.
Improved image of Japan?
Media opinion polls have shown an overwhelming majority of people support the change. For example, an Asahi Shimbun survey in November found that 71 percent of respondents back female lineage, while 78 percent prefer legal changes to allow female emperors.
In recent street interviews by the English-language edition of The Asahi Shimbun, supporters have cited the need to ease the pressure on Masako to have a baby boy.
"In addition to the importance of gender equality, another merit would be 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," said Chieko Kanatani, head of the advocacy group Women and Work Research Center in Tokyo.
In stark contrast, opponents are having a tough time convincing the public on their way of thinking.
"If the change is made to the tradition that has lasted more than 2,000 years in such a hasty manner, Japan's identity, based on the unity of the people, for which the emperor is the symbol, will face a meltdown," warned Takeo Hiranuma, a Lower House member who heads a Diet members' league in the Japan Conference, a group of conservative intellectuals, politicians and others.
Hiranuma, a former trade minister, says that he would not oppose allowing a woman from the male lineage to become emperor, but he could not accept an emperor of female lineage.
A sense of crisis was felt at a gathering of opponents in late November in Tokyo.
"One thing we have to be very careful about is not to draw the wrath of the public because gender equality is the norm, and we need to be more strategic," said Kyoko Nishikawa, a Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Hiranuma and his colleagues are hoping to gain support for an alternative bill to counter the government's planned revision of the Imperial House Law. The bill would aim at maintaining the current rule of giving the first son priority in ascension, observers say.
Under the government-sponsored bill, the first child, regardless of sex, would be given priority.
However, it remains to be seen if such a move would gather momentum.
One reason that opponents have faltered may be that former imperial family members have chosen to remain silent over the issue.
The only exception is Tsuneyasu Takeda, historian and great-great grandson of Emperor Meiji.
In December, Takeda published a book titled "Katararenakatta Kozokutachi no Shinjitsu" (The untold truth of the imperial family) to express his opposition to the proposed revisions. He also suggested reinstating 11 former court families that lost their imperial status after World War II.
However, Takeda said the heads of the former court families agreed in late 2004, just before Koizumi's advisory panel started its discussions, not to speak out on the issue.
When Takeda approached some families to explain his plan to write a book, "some told me that I should act accordingly and not get involved in political issues," Takeda said.
While the odds appear daunting for those trying to stymie the government's move, Kyoko Kanemaru, a 20-year-old student at Yokohama National University, says her argument against a female emperor once won a debate held at Sundai Kofu High School in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Kanemaru, who actually supports the idea of having a female emperor, pulled off the surprise victory by adopting a rather extreme strategy.
She undermined the arguments of those in favor of a female emperor by arguing that the emperor system itself encouraged discrimination--and that accepting a female emperor would only allow that system to continue.
"When the opposing team tried to rebut by insisting the system should be retained but made more democratic and gender-friendly by introducing a female emperor, I exposed fallacies in their argument," she said. "I pointed out that the current emperor system did not discriminate solely against women because while female family members cannot assume the throne, male commoners cannot become members of the imperial family, either."
That effectively silenced her opponents' arguments, she said.
Ironically, Kanemaru's argument is not the type of logic the traditionalists want to count on to oppose revisions of the law.
In fact, what the anti-revision camp is really concerned is the possibility that people opposed to the emperor system may back the proposed revision in hopes that a break with the imperial family's tradition of bansei-ikkei (centuries-old unbroken male lineage) could help to erode the very foundation of the system. Some signs of opposition
"Even if many people back the revisions, the support base of a new emperor system would be very fragile, only based on capricious public opinion," said Hidetsugu Yagi, an assistant professor of regional policy at the Takasaki City University of Economics and expert on the Constitution. He is one of the leading opponents of a female emperor, and he stated his views at a government panel meeting.
Yagi says the overriding task for the anti-revision force is to prevent the bill from being submitted to the regular Diet session in March.
"Once Prime Minister Koizumi steps down (in September), the political environment surrounding the bill could change," Yagi said.
Opponents saw a ray of hope at a recent meeting of 30 LDP lawmakers, including about 20 men, who are among 83 LDP Lower House members called "Koizumi children." They were newly elected to the chamber in the September election, taking advantage of Koizumi's popularity.
According to a source, the Dec. 14 meeting became a "lively session," where "most of the men expressed negative views toward a female emperor and female lineage, while most women backed it."
"If the LDP revises the Imperial House Law in a hasty manner without sufficient debate, we might have to quit the party," Masaaki Taira, one of the participants, said at the meeting.
"I had used the provocative words to make other lawmakers realize the importance of the issue," he said in an interview.
However, there are no signs of a major campaign against the revisions inside or outside of the Diet. In fact, this could be Koizumi's easiest reform to push through, considering his battles with bureaucrats and his own party members over privatizing postal services and public highway corporations.
Koizumi still repeats something he started saying soon after becoming prime minister in April 2001.
"I believe this is an era where the nation will embrace the advent of a female emperor."
Under the Imperial House Law, only male imperial family members of male lineage can become emperor.
In January 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi set up a panel consisting of 10 experts from various fields to discuss the law and possible ways to ensure stable succession in the imperial family.
The panel recommended giving eligibility to females and their descendants; that the first child, regardless of sex, be given priority in ascension, and that female family members who marry commoners be allowed to retain their imperial family member status.
Past female emperors
There have been eight female emperors who reigned in 10 eras until now. However, there has never been an emperor of female lineage.
The last female emperor was Go-sakuramachi, who reigned between 1762 and 1770.(IHT/Asahi: January 01,2006)