Japan wants women to work – just not as head of state

by Anna Fifield / 16 July, 2017
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Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe. Photo/Getty Images

Japan’s politicians won’t countenance a woman on the throne, though the public seems ready.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, wants women to work. It’s part of his plan to revive the moribund Japanese economy. But there’s one job he doesn’t want a woman to hold: the top one. Anything but the head of state.

Japan’s “Chrysanthemum Throne” is in a state of crisis. Akihito is the only emperor to have served under the American-written post-war constitution that allowed his father, Hirohito, to remain in place but stripped him of all his powers and made him a figurehead.

Akihito is 83 and has suffered bouts of ill health, so at the end of 2015, he asked – very obliquely, lest it be seen as a political act, which is not allowed under the constitution – to abdicate. That would make him the first emperor in 200 years to relinquish his post and has created headaches for Abe’s Government.

The Government has agreed to allow Akihito to stand down at the end of this year, paving the way for his 56-year-old son, Naruhito, to take over. But this will be done with a one-off change to the law governing the imperial household; future emperors will have to go through the same tortuous process that Akihito has been through.

But the bigger issue here is one that Abe’s Government just didn’t want to deal with: the question of whether women should be allowed to inherit the throne, as happens in European monarchies.

It’s not just a matter of principle but a very practical one. Of the 19 members of the imperial family, 14 are women. And in contrast to the situation in Europe, women are removed from the royal family once they marry outside it, so the recent engagement to a commoner of Princess Mako, a 25-year-old PhD student, means the family is set to shrink further.

Because so many of her generation in the imperial family are women, Mako’s engagement has forced Japan to consider whether there will even be enough people in the family to carry out its official duties once these young women have married and left.

The few remaining men in the household haven’t exactly done a good job at advertising the family as a good one to marry into. Just ask Masako Owada, the multilingual Harvard- and Oxford-educated foreign ministry diplomat who married Naruhito in 1993. As Crown Princess, she faced severe constraints in the imperial household and came under pressure to produce a male heir, which plunged her into a decade-plus-long depression. She had one child – a daughter, Aiko – in 2001, sparking a public debate about whether women should be allowed to succeed the throne.

This is politically controversial here even though, according to myth, the imperial line began with the sun goddess Amaterasu almost 3000 years ago.

The birth of a boy in 2006 put an end to any talk of women inheriting the throne. After Naruhito, the next in line to the throne is his younger brother, Akishino, then the latter’s 11-year-old son, Hisahito.

But the imperial family remains a tough place for women. Masako began to appear in public again – a little – only in 2014, and 15-year-old Aiko has also been feeling the pressure, with tabloid newspapers reporting that she had missed two months of school earlier this year, apparently because of stress.

The traditionalists in Abe’s ruling party didn’t address any of these issues in the legislative patch-up job the Government created to allow Akihito to abdicate. There was no consideration of allowing women to remain in the royal family after marriage and certainly no discussion of allowing women to accede to the throne – despite opinion polls showing the majority of Japanese are open to the idea. For this generation, and maybe the next one too, this is a job that’s strictly men-only.

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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