TV & Radio
Making Way for Empresses
TOKYO, Jan 19 (IPS) - Chieko Akaishi, a feminist, has mixed feelings about moves to amend the imperial succession law to allow princesses to ascend Japan's revered Chrysanthemum Throne.
''A female succession to lead Japan's imperial family is exciting because it signals a dramatic breakthrough in the oldest of Japan's traditions. At the same time, it is hard to rejoice too much because, after all, the Japanese monarchy symbolises a feudal system that upholds a top-down system and not a modern democracy,'' says Akaishi.
Indeed, the Japanese imperial family, promoted as the oldest in the world, is strictly controlled by the imperial Agency that orchestrates the daily schedules, appearance in public, speeches and finances of members.
Feminists believe that even with a female on the throne there will be no real change given that the monarchy is bound by elaborate rituals and wields no real political power.
Still, according to Mitsuko Yamaguchi, head of the Yamaguchi Memorial Association, a leading women's rights organization, the ascendancy of a female would break the sacred male hierarchy custom that has been upheld for more than 2000 years, and is thus a path breaking symbol of change.
''There is no doubt the appearance of a female empress will bring hope to modern Japanese women who are now facing inequality in the work place and society,'' she said.
What has forced the government to consider a change in the imperial succession law is the circumstance of the royal family not having produced a male heir in over four decades.
Debate over a suitable amendment intensified after crown princess Masako gave birth to Aiko, her first and only child, after nearly eight years of marriage to the crown prince.
An advisory panel, appointed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a final report released last month, recommended that the first-born child of an emperor, irrespective of gender, should be made the imperial heir.
The proposal will be tabled as a bill before the Diet (parliament) when sessions begin later this month.
Experts contend the bill, if passed, will make history in Japan where only eight females monarchs have ascended the throne, and then they have been either widows or single and stepped down as soon as a male heir was ready.
Importantly, none of the female monarchs had children who assumed the throne and posed no threat to the principle of male succession.
The proposed change, according to history experts, is revolutionary. Prof. Hiroshi Takahashi at Shizuoka University explains that there is no alternative now but to accept princesses as heirs to the imperial line. ''By making a law that allows the first-born to lead, there is a landmark change in Japanese history.''
Indeed, the step has gripped public attention with the proposed bill winning support from more than 70 percent support from people polled in surveys.
The huge public support has been attributed to popular sympathy for princess Aiko, the charming 4-year-old future empress who is the only daughter of crown prince Naruhito and his commoner wife, Masako.
''There is huge sympathy, especially among women, for princess Aiko who was born after her mother battled infertility and intense pressure to produce a son that later led her to fall into a severe depression. Naturally, they support female ascendancy as a means of expressing their support for princess Masako and her husband,'' says Akaishi.
The rallying public support has strengthened the hand of proponents of female emperors but also stirred opposition among conservatives who see male heirs as the proper way to protect Japan's ancient imperial system.
Opponents include the cousin of the emperor, prince Tomohito, who publicly denounced the move in an essay and suggested that other male members of the extended imperial family could be adopted by the reigning Emperor to qualify as an heir.
A key question for conservatives is the possibility of a commoner becoming the husband of the future empress and posing a threat to the purity of the bloodline of the royal family that dates back to the legendary Jinmu, believed to be a descendant of the sun goddess.
Prince Tomohito has been quoted in the Japanese media as expressing concern about the breaking of the male lineage and saying that ''debate could reach a point where people say there is no need for an emperor''.
Such a step would be sacrilege for powerful conservative politicians and other groups who trace the uniqueness of their country to the long unbroken succession of the male imperial bloodline.
Takahashi explains that the entry into the royal household of two highly popular commoners, empress Michiko and princess Masako, is not considered a threat to this carefully nurtured notion, because they are not male.
Change, says Yamaguchi, must come as Japanese society, after the end of World War II, has been steadily modernising for 60 years now and the emperor is no longer seen as a living god.
There are other changes that people would like to see. For example, to the law that says princesses must turn into commoners, if they marry outside royalty and forever leave the palace.
Indeed, the stripping of the royal title of Princess Nori, the youngest daughter of the emperor, after she married a commoner in November, is now debated, with some arguing that she should be allowed to visit the palace.
''Change, however slow, is coming. After all, it is important to remember that we are dealing with a monarchy that is deeply rooted in the psyche of the Japanese people,'' she says. (END/2006)