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Old vs. new clash over Japanese women
By SHIHOKO GOTO
UPI Senior Business Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- As Japanese lawmakers prepare to debate later this month on whether or not to allow a woman to succeed the imperial throne, it is clear the issue goes far beyond simply allowing the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Masako, to be empress.
In fact, whether or not the Diet approves Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's push for a change in the imperial house law, which dictates only male heirs can ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne, might well have longer-term consequences for how women are regarded in Japan.
But it's not just a legal battle that looms ahead. It is also a change in the mind-set of both men and women in the country that has only changed gradually and often begrudgingly over the past two decades.
Women and men are equal under Japanese law, and gender discrimination is illegal. Nevertheless, it is clear women have not played as prominent a role in Japan's economy or politics as they have elsewhere. For instance, only 11 percent of corporate management positions in the country were held by women in 2004, and while that was an improvement from 2001 when the rate was 8.3 percent, it still falls far short compared to other parts of the world. Meanwhile, fewer than one-third of mothers return to work after having children, with the majority returning to positions that are far lower than ones they previously held.
A government panel analyzing the issue for nearly a year presented its findings late last year and supported Koizumi's position. A November poll by the Asahi Shimbun showed 78 percent supported moves to change the law to allow for female sovereigns. Moreover, should lawmakers vote not to pass the legislation to allow the 4-year-old Princess Aiko to head the imperial family, then it would certainly not present a positive face for Japan in the international community, one Japanese diplomat acknowledged on condition of anonymity.
Still, others are focused more on preserving a tradition and keeping one of the world's oldest monarchies intact. Earlier this week, the cousin of Emperor Hirohito publicly criticized efforts by the government to allow women on the throne. Prince Tomohito of Mikasa is fifth in line to the throne, and he first voiced his opinions in a newsletter for the Imperial Household Agency late last year that is distributed solely to staff of the agency. He has since expanded his views and made them public by publishing his comments in this month's Bungei Shunju magazine, arguing the monarchy should look into alternatives to having a female heir, including allowing concubines and adoptions. No male heirs to the throne have been born over the past 40 years, as both sons of Emperor Akihito have only had girls.
"The question is whether it is a right thing to change the unique tradition and history so easily," Tomohito wrote.
Koizumi has been a staunch supporter of women in the workforce and taking on leadership roles, in addition to supporting Aiko's position, or at least he recognizes the political points he can win over the issue.
In the latest Lower House elections last fall, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party scored a landslide victory due in no small part due to Koizumi's proactive efforts to have high-profile women including academics and celebrities as well as fast-track bureaucrats to run for seats in liberal, urban areas.
Meanwhile, the prime minister also pushed through a bill earlier this month that would encourage more women to stay in the workforce and lure them back after they have children, including encouraging employers to offer more flexible hours, using more unused space to establish childcare centers, and encourage women to own their own businesses.
The last time a major government initiative was taken to ensure gender equality was in 1985, when the equal employment opportunity law was passed to ensure equal pay for men and women for the same work, and allowing women to apply for the same positions as men.
There is no doubt the law has been successful in allowing more women to take up jobs on the same footing as men. It has done little, however, to ensure women stay in the workforce once they get married and have children. While there are concerns Koizumi's latest proposition will not necessarily lead to more women trying to balance work and family, most agree it is a step in the right direction. And while Japan's royals may no longer affect the daily lives of most Japanese, if at all, giving the nod to Aiko as her father's successor will give the signal the country is moving to encourage women to be an integral part of society, even after they have children.