Monday, February 13, 2006

Japan's Permanent Succession Crisis

“To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God and the subversion of good order.” – John Knox.

It didn’t take long for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to shelve proposed legislation allowing a woman to succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Just one day after the Imperial Household Agency confirmed that Princess Kiko, wife of the Emperor’s second son, was pregnant Koizumi backed away from the bill.

The prime minister had agreed to push for revisions in the Imperial Household Law that would allow a woman to become a reigning empress, since it is becoming obvious that Crown Princess Masako, mother of one daughter named Aiko, will probably not bear another child thus bringing into question who will carry on the line, supposedly unbroken for 2,000 years.

But even before the pregnancy was announced –or at least before it was made official -- a surprising amount of opposition was building up against the female succession bill, at least among the more conservative members of Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party.

It was never clear, however, how these opponents of female succession could overcome the biological barriers. The current emperor’s cousin Tomohiko went so far as to suggest that the family revive concubinage (for imperial families only, one presumes) to find an heir.

Concubinage was common in years past. The Emperor Meiji was the son of a concubine. Interestingly, Hirohito resisted appeals for him to take a concubine after his wife gave birth to a worrying succession of girls, until finally the reigning monarch, Akihito was born.

Some say Crown Prince should imitate Henry VIII and divorce his wife and find another mate. That might seem a little drastic in a country where the monarch is just a powerless symbol of state. Never mind that all of Japan rejoiced at what was (and by all signs still is), obviously a love match in 1993 when Naruhito and Masako Owada married.

It would seem that the household agency has realized that putting pressure on Masako was driving her to a nervous breakdown. So the attention turned to Naruhito’s brother’s family. After all, Princess Kiko, now 39, last gave birth more than ten years ago. They have two daughters, Mako and Kako and may have felt they had completed their family.

Conservatives have argued that the bill should be delayed until a “national consensus” develops over the issue. Since polls have shown as much as 90 percent of Japan’s public approve of a female succession, one might think that a national consensus for reform already existed. (Poll numbers have fallen in the wake of the pregnancy).

The Japan Times commented dryly, “ If Japan were truly ready for a female emperor, why is everyone so thrilled about this pregnancy? Television announcers all but wept breaking the news on Tuesday. And opponents of the prime minister’s plan appear giddy with relief at the thought that a boy could yet appear and save the nation from the frightful prospect of a reigning empress who could be succeeded in turn by her own daughters.”

The roots of Japan’s permanent succession crisis go back to the years immediately after World War II. American occupiers defined the emperor of Japan as the head of state and “symbol of the sate and unity of the people,” but in redrafting the Imperial Household Law in 1947 they maintained the provision that only males can inherit the throne.

This was a curious anomaly since elsewhere in Japan’s new constitution they wrote in an “equal rights amendment” (Article 24) years before a proposed ERA to the U.S. constitution soared then fizzled. Conservatives want to gut this article in a general constitutional revision, but that’s another story.

At the same time, the Americans instituted other changes that would eventually complicate the succession. They abolished the aristocracy and divested 11 families of imperial status, considerably shrinking the pool from which future emperors could be drawn. That is why all of the male members of the family have married commoners.

This works up to a point because in Japan the woman leaves her birth family and becomes a member of her husband’s family. It doesn’t work the other way. When Princess Nori wedded a Tokyo civil servant last November, she gave up her title and her membership in the Imperial family and became plain Mrs. Sayako Kuroda.

So if, for example, Empress Aiko married a commoner and if the couple had a child who succeeded to the throne, some scion of a respectable Osaka Brewery family or some senior civil servant in Tokyo would find himself the founder of a new dynasty, the first one in the more than 2,000 years.

Some think the answer may lie in reviving the aristocracy, in order to provide more males. But after being submerged in the general commonality for more than 60 years, many in Japan might find this move unpalatable too.

Koizumi and company would like nothing better than to welcome a new prince into the world and thus move this political and cultural hot potato several more generations down the line. The advisory panel has cautioned that the possible birth of more boys would not change its conclusion that allowing a female monarch is inevitable and desirable. The problem is not going to go away.


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