TV & Radio
Cover Story/Next up: Overseas critics say changes, no matter how controversial, are needed for the family's survival.
By MARIE DOEZEMA, Staff Writer
This wraps up the series on issues and topics facing the imperial family.
There's one thing liberal feminists and right-wing traditionalists have to agree on these days--the imperial family is in a time of flux.
Recent government recommendations will most likely allow for women to ascend the throne, and if this happens, there's no telling what's next. Would progressive changes put the imperial family more in touch with contemporary society? Or would changing the long-held patriarchal tradition endanger the very institution?
In Japan, news sources as diametrically opposed as weekly tabloids and the notoriously tight-lipped Imperial Household Agency are consumed with feeding--or depriving--the public with the scoop on the imperial family. Elsewhere in the world, too, scholars and politicians are watching and wondering what the future holds for Japan's royal family.
Allowing women to serve as emperor is far from a radical concept, says Kenneth Ruoff, assistant professor of Japanese history at Portland State University in Oregon and author of "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy," which received The Asahi Shimbun's Osaragi Jiro Prize for Commentary in 2004.
"I think that it's overdue," Ruoff says, emphasizing the personal as well as political impact such a change would have. "I think it has the potential to confront male chauvinists in Japan who think that women can only do certain roles, because they're going to be faced with having a national symbol who's a woman.
"I think it will be a bit more difficult for the chauvinist line to hold--everything from jokes to the treatment of women."
Not surprisingly, updating the imperial tradition brings with it considerable controversy. Some, particularly those on the far right, view the change to allow females to serve as emperor as an indication of the imperial family's increasingly leftist tendencies. Emperor Akihito, for instance, has become renowned for his empathy--and outright apologies--for victims of Japan's wartime atrocities.
In some sense, varied opinions, and the will to express them publicly, are inevitable within the imperial household.
"As the size of the family grows, you'll have more diversity," predicts Herbert Bix, professor of history and sociology at Binghamton University in New York and Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan."
But how much difference do the occasional leftist leanings of the imperial household have on the overall state of politics? "He (Akihito) is basically saying that Japan did some horrible things, and he's saying that not only to neighboring countries but he's saying that to his own people. And yet as we've seen in the past couple of years, it's not as though the issue has improved. If anything, it's actually gotten worse," Ruoff says.
Akihito may have made apologies and even gone so far as to point out that there is Korean blood in the imperial bloodline, but the impact this has on international relations is limited in the grander scheme of things. Japan may have a contrite emperor, but it also has a prime minister intent on making regular, inflammatory visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
The imperial future
The move to allow women to take the throne is, in some sense, a means of sustaining the imperial family. The tradition can't last without an heir. If modernizing implies sustainability, though, how far should the family go?
It's a matter ripe for speculation, says Ruoff. "In terms of considering what might be modernized, I'm going to go out on a limb. This is considered radical even for some people on the left in Japan," he says. "Japan is becoming a very multicultural society, and is it appropriate for the symbol of the nation to privilege one religion over another? I happen to think not, but a lot of Japanese consider Shinto to just be a matter of course."
The idea of removing the Shinto element from the imperial tradition is an idea that would shock many, concedes Ruoff, and would drive the far right "absolutely nutty."
"They (the far right) reject any sort of adjustment to these rituals that they claim are utterly traditional, even though historians have shown that they were mostly invented, made up out of thin air, or fundamentally reinvented--taking a thread of a tradition and making it into something very modern. It would drive these people absolutely nuts," he says.
Dealing with the past and moving into the future depends on openness rather than secrecy, and the Imperial Household Agency continues to be an obstacle.
"It's wrong that the Imperial Household Agency controls archives of the Showa Era and denies Japanese people access to imperial documents that could shed light on the political process during the Showa Era," Bix says. "That process led to disaster, and Japanese people will be constantly assessing this. They need all the information and all the data they can possibly get. Bureaucratic habits of secrecy aren't going to help the situation."
According to Bix, Japan would be better off if the emperor were removed from the Constitution, as well as removed from the political center of Japan.
"That would be the ideal--get the family out of Tokyo and back to Kyoto," says Bix. The grounds of the Imperial Palace could then be transformed into a national park and museum.
"These are vexed issues, but I feel that they should be discussed," Bix says, citing the clandestine nature of the Imperial Household Agency as a deterrent to the political process. "The games of the Imperial Household Agency are not healthy, and they will always be used as a game by politicians."
Others, though, question the extent of the Imperial Household Agency's control. There are many factors that play into the secrecy of the imperial family, Ruoff says.
"They (Imperial Household Agency) don't have the sort of blanket control over the mass media that they are often credited with having," he says. "We're at a point in time where Japanese readers still don't want the mass media, the mainstream newspapers, to publish unseemly slanderous stuff about their royals. The people that work at these papers have informed me that if they publish something (negative) or forget to use honorifics, they get calls from their readers saying 'we don't want that.'"
The frustration that comes with dealing with the Imperial Household Agency is a problem unique to the Japanese monarchy, says Hans van der Lugt, a correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. After 10 years of reporting on Japanese society and politics, he's fed up. "It's a joke. It's ridiculous," he says of the Imperial Household Agency's media control, which requires journalists to stick to a pre-approved list of questions and subjects at news conferences. "I've been there (imperial news conferences) twice, and even if I could, I'd never go there again."
It's not just the Imperial Household Agency's control over the media that astounds Van der Lugt; it's also the control they apparently have over some imperial family members. "It seems that they think they're more important than the imperial family themselves."
Certainly, the Imperial Household Agency's treatment of Princess Masako has been called into question, even by the crown prince. According to Ruoff, what Masako has endured at the hands of the Imperial Household Agency and Japanese media reflects a flagrant gender bias.
"Everything that's gone on with Princess Masako has revolved around the heir question. There you have an instance of sexism; the crown prince's role in this lack of heir is so often kind of forgotten," Ruoff says.
"Tremendous pressure has been put on her (Masako) to produce an heir. She had to suffer comments from people within the Imperial Household Agency along the lines of 'you know your job is to produce a male,'" he says. "I think Masako would very much resent being viewed as a womb. Certainly in this day and age, most women would, if not all."(IHT/Asahi: January 7,2006)