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The Princess and the Workforce
The controversy over bringing four-year-old Princess Aiko into the line of royal succession may have larger implications for Japan's women and economy
By Brian Bremner
Updated: 7:00 a.m. ET Jan. 4, 2006
The Japanese royal at the center of a national debate is all of four years old, and she's hardly the stuff of tabloid headlines. When the Japanese Imperial Household Agency releases photos of Princess Aiko, it's usually along the lines of the little princess digging sweet potatoes with her mother, Crown Princess Masako, at one of the Imperial family's royal palaces. Following Princess Aiko is about as scintillating as a covering a croquet tournament for the 80-plus set.
Yet this tot finds herself in an animated struggle between Japan's archconservative cultural guardians and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government. Sometime this month, Koizumi plans to submit legislation that would revise the Imperial House Law to allow Aiko to become second in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne after Crown Prince Naruhito, her father and the heir apparent to reigning Emperor Akihito, who just turned 72 and seems to be in splendid health.
In many ways, the legislation makes sense. For one thing, the royal family has had a devil of a time producing male heirs. The last one was back in the mid-'60s. Also, if Japanese press reports are to believed, Crown Princess Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito, now both in their early 40s, have had a tough time conceiving, and only the Sun Goddess Amaterasu knows whether they'll produce another child, male or female. So after Naruhito passes on into the great beyond, there may not be a male heir...and that's a huge, really catastrophic deal among some cultural conservatives in Japan.
THE RIGHT SYMBOL. The legislation before the Diet will allow Aiko to become the first Empress of Japan since the late 18th century. The country has had only eight female empresses over the last 2,000-plus years or so. And opponents such as Lower House Diet member Takeo Hiranuma have warned that Japan's very national identity "will face a meltdown" if the law Koizumi has in mind is passed. Hiranuma prefers a revision that would make it clear Aiko would be an exception, and the whole institution would revert back to male control once a suitable heir with the right lineage could be found.
I'm not Japanese, so maybe I have no business butting in. Still, I doubt most youthful, iPod-toting Japanese really worry about whether the country should have a female Emperor. And I wonder how many of them could tell you the name of Japan's last female one. [For the record, she was Go-Sakuramachi, who reigned from 1762-70.]
Actually, I think having a female heir is just the right sort of symbolism for Japan at this juncture. While it's in the midst of one its longest post-war expansions, its population started shrinking last year, and the economy is facing labor shortages in some key sectors such as engineering and research. Labor conditions are the tightest since 1992, according to government data -- a situation aggravated by the fact that the baby boom generation is nearly the traditional retirement age of 60.
GOODWILL AMBASSADOR. Massive immigration is unthinkable in a culturally insular society like Japan, but getting more of its highly capable and educated women into the workforce in a serious way shouldn't be. In sharp contrast to their Western counterparts, Japanese women rarely reach the upper echelons of corporate life. In Japan, 55% of all women work, vs. about 62% in the U.S. Closing that gap would add 2.4 million women to the workforce over time, according to a study by Goldman Sachs.
Koizumi understands that, which is why he's expanding day-care facilities in Japan. And perhaps that's also behind his provocative backing of the revision on Imperial succession in Japan. If you ask me, he ought to think about bringing Harvard-educated and former diplomat Crown Princess Masako into his government or turn her into a more of an official goodwill ambassador for Japan abroad.
Until all this is settled, though, here's to Aiko having the blissful childhood she deserves. And to continued prosperity for the royal family and Japan, with its surprisingly revived economy, for 2006.
Copyright © 2006 The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. All rights reserved.