TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)--In a succession drama that is gripping Japan, 4-year-old Princess Aiko may become the country's first reigning empress since the 18th century, when Empress Go-Sakuramachi reigned from 1762 to 1770 in one of the rare interruptions in the male rule of the world's oldest monarchy.
Eight women have ascended Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne during its 2,000-year history. Japan had several female monarchs between the sixth and 18th centuries, but in each case succession subsequently reverted to the male line because the female rulers remained childless and the reign reverted to an unbroken line of males. The preference for male rulers was enshrined in a 1947 law that forbids women to ascend the throne and reserves it for men who have emperors on their father's side.
The discussion about the monarchy holds a special place in political debates in Japan. Since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, supporters as well as opponents to the throne have used it to define their respective positions and that of the nation. After Japan's defeat in 1945, the American occupation authorities compelled Japan to re-examine the relationship between the monarchy and the nation by imposing a constitution that stripped the emperor of his power and repositioned the institution as a symbol of national unity. But the monarchy in Japan remains significant as a political and cultural institution.
Mamiko Ueno, an author and professor of constitutional law at Chuo University in Tokyo, says a reigning empress would have a positive impact on the future of women in Japan, where there are 66 women in the Diet, representing just 9 percent of the seats.
"It would change Japan's attitudes about the role of women in society, since a female empress would become the symbolic leader of Japan," Ueno reasoned.
Male Heirs in Short Supply
The emperor's two sons are unlikely to produce male heirs. No males have been born to the imperial family since 1965. Crown Prince Naruhito, 45, and Crown Princess Masako, 42, have only one child, preschool-aged Princess Aiko. Naruhito's only brother and second in line to the throne, Prince Fumihito, is married to Kiko Kawashima and they have two daughters and no sons.
Princess Aiko is a popular figure in Japan and receives a lot of attention, but her mother, Crown Princess Masako, was not seen in public for the past 13 months and has only recently begun to reassume her official duties. The Harvard-educated former diplomat was diagnosed as suffering from an "adjustment disorder," according to the Imperial Household Agency, caused by the pressure to produce a male heir and 10 years of trying to adapt to life inside the imperial palace.
A 10-member government panel assembled by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will submit a bill to the Diet in March that recommends the current succession law be revised. They will propose that the emperor's firstborn child should be given priority in the line of succession, regardless of sex, paving Aiko's path to regal power.
A powerful group of conservative politicians, traditionalists and academics have vowed to fight the panel's proposal. They have aggressively lobbied politicians, held demonstrations and organized discussions in a bid to persuade the public that a woman at the head of the royal family could throw the country into an identity crisis.
"We want the public to know that we are in a dangerous situation in which Japan will no longer be Japan, and we would also like to appeal to politicians," says Keiichiro Kobori, a professor at the University of Tokyo who heads a group of academics and lawyers opposed to a female monarch. "If a female emperor were to marry a commoner, then there could be people who would try to take advantage of the system to fulfill their political ambitions."
Public Supports Female Ascension
The Japanese public is strongly in favor of allowing females to ascend the throne. In recent polls from Japanese newspapers, about 70 percent support the idea of a reigning empress when there are no sons born to the emperor. But the public shows less support when the first-born child is female, followed by sons. In that case, the public still favors the throne going to the male heir.
Kobori and others vow to influence the public's opinions about the issue.
Imperial family members have also joined the debate, even though they are not allowed to interfere in political issues. Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a cousin of the emperor, is against any change in Japan's imperial system. He recently published essays explaining his opposition in Japanese newspapers.
"The reason why the imperial family line is so precious is due to the very fact that it has been, without exception, a male line. Allowing a female to reign would represent a break with history," Tomohito wrote.
Tsuneyasu Takeda, a descendant of a former imperial branch, agrees with Tomohito and plans to publish a book on the role of these families supporting the male-line succession.
Line Descends From Sun Goddess
Japanese myth says that the first emperor, who was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, reigned 2,665 years ago. Some conservatives say the emperor is the inheritor of the blood that has been preserved for thousands of years, and the chrysanthemum--"kiku" in Japanese--represents the emperor's coat of arms.
Some proponents of male succession have even suggested that concubines should be reintroduced into the royal court to increase the chances of conceiving a male heir. In the past, Japanese princes took concubines to satisfy their passions or to produce heirs, as the male bloodline was essential for maintaining the imperial system.
"I wholeheartedly support it," Tomohito wrote, referring to the concubine system. "But I think that the social mood inside and outside the country may make it a little difficult."
Japan's current Emperor Akihito seems to take a favorable view of female successors. On his 72nd birthday in December, he said in comments released by the Imperial Household Agency, "Female members have played major roles in the royal family up to now. I feel their presence brings some good elements such as warmth and encouragement to the people on both public and private occasions."
But he would not comment on the government panel, which supports the female imperial succession, as he is not allowed to interfere in political issues.
Catherine Makino is a freelance writer in Tokyo. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Japan Times, The Asian Wall Street Journal and the China Morning Post.
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