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The X versus Y chromosome
January 4, 2006
According to a recent survey of Japanese voters, 73% support the idea of female members of the imperial family ascending to the throne. Perhaps influenced by this support, a government panel recommended that the Imperial Household Law of 1947 be revised, which would allow Princess Aiko, now 4, to ascend to the throne.
Eight other females have reigned as empresses in Japan's history but they did not produce any heirs, so their role was strictly as a caretaker — a temporary solution keeping the throne safely occupied until a male heir with the royal Y chromosome could be enthroned.
This recommendation by the panel should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed this royal debate. What is a surprise, is the order of succession that the panel is also recommending. They have stated that the firstborn child of the empress, regardless of gender, should follow in succession.
It is interesting to note, that as with everything in life, there are actually laws of succession. This would change Japan's law from "Salic Law," which entirely excludes females from the hereditary succession, to "Cognatic Primogeniture," in which the right of succession passes to the eldest child of the sovereign, regardless of gender. To try and put this into modern perspective, countries such as Italy, Bulgaria and France still adhere to "Salic Law," while only Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden practice "Cognatic Primogeniture."
So the real debate has boiled down to the future line of succession and the preservation of the Y chromosome. Tsuneyasu Takeda, a member of the former imperial family, and Hakubun Shimomura, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, have already started fueling the debate. "The Emperor," Takeda stated, "is not valued because he is intelligent or handsome. It is because he is the inheritor of the blood that has been preserved for 2,000 years."
It can be argued that Takeda may have his own agenda as he probably has this royal Y chromosome. Shimomura has echoed his argument referring to Princess Aiko as a "pinch hitter" which would be alright providing a male with the Y chromosome succeeds her. To make this happen, the 11 branches of the imperial family that were abolished during the American postwar occupation would have to be brought back into the fold or the practice of royal concubines would have to be revived. Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a cousin of the current emperor, has actually said that he wholeheartedly supports the resurrection of the concubine system, "but I think that the social mood inside and outside the country may make it a little difficult," he stated.
Many historians cite the early writing of Japanese poetry as an argument that the islands of Japan began as a matriarchy, that women ruled here as goddesses or legendary half-goddesses, that the country was first ruled by strong empresses who even conquered other lands. At that time, 700 AD, women were on a more equal footing with men, joining with them in hunting and fighting in border skirmishes. Empress Jitoh (645-702) was the wife of Emperor Temmu and she ascended the throne and ruled for 10 years when he died. An argument can be made that female leaders are part of ancient Japanese history. There have always been female rulers. Some Egyptian queens are believed to have governed from around 3000 BC and one queen, Ku-Baba, ruled the Mesopotamian city-state of Ur around 2500 BC.
Today there are queens in Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. There are female presidents in the Philippines and Germany. There are female prime ministers in New Zealand, Bangladesh and Mozambique. Women like Indira Gandhi, who was the prime minister of India, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain have greatly contributed not only to their individual nations but to the world at large.
Although Japan's imperial family is mostly symbolic as opposed to an actual governing force, it is still an important part of Japanese culture. The report of the advisory council has been given to the prime minister and the government will now submit a bill to the Diet next spring. The government may decide to delay this decision and simply allow Aiko to ascend to the throne, hoping for a solution to the succession issue at a later date.
Regardless of the politicians' action or inaction, this is a topic that will not disappear, and sooner or later the Japanese government is going to have to accept the idea that while genealogy is important, the gender of royalty should not be the deciding factor. In other words, better a good queen than a bad king.
Adrienne McPhail is an American journalist based in Yokosuka. She is a frequent contributor to Crisscross News and the Arab News newspaper.