Embracing an empress

JAPAN LOOKS LIKE A MODERN nation, with its sophisticated financial system, advanced technology and robust public healthcare. Yet in the arena of women’s rights, stubborn traditions keep Japan lagging behind its Asian neighbors. A simple, symbolic step would be to allow a woman the right to ascend to the throne.

Imperial succession in Japan is not exactly a pressing matter. Emperor Akihito, 73 and in good health, has an eldest son standing by: Crown Prince Naruhito, who is 45. Yet the nation has taken extraordinary interest in the absence of male heirs in the following generation. Naruhito and his younger brother, Akishino, only have daughters.

Without any imperial grandsons on the horizon, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently offered a bill in Japan’s parliament to make a constitutional change to allow for a female emperor. In a nation where women get second-class treatment in the workplace and at home, many politicians agreed that it is time to do away with a male-only right to the Chrysanthemum Throne, which has been politically powerless since the end of World War II. Polls show support for such a change.


Until a surprise arrived. On Feb. 7, it was announced that Akishino and his wife, Kiko, whose daughters are 14 and 11, were expecting a third child. It’s still early in the pregnancy, and there’s no word on whether a boy or girl is coming. Still, parliament erupted into cheers when the news broke. The prime minister set aside his proposed bill. Public support for the constitutional change slipped away.

Japan’s imperial family may look dull compared with its British counterpart, but its own drama has ridden on the promise, and disappointment, of Naruhito and his wife, Masako. Naruhito was seen as something of a loser when he remained unmarried into his 30s, but his standing skyrocketed when it was revealed that he refused to consider all proposed brides because he was waiting for his secret love, an independent-minded and Harvard-educated diplomat. Their marriage in 1993 signaled the rise of the cosmopolitan, career-minded woman.

But the conservative bureaucrats of the Imperial Household Agency, which controls the family’s purse and daily schedule, seemed threatened by the notion of change.

The agency punished Masako for her inability to produce a son, making her a virtual prisoner inside the Imperial Palace. She disappeared from public view in 2003, and her husband issued a rare public rebuke to the agency when it blocked Masako from traveling abroad with him.

Whether the emperor gets a grandson or granddaughter, Japan can take a step forward by embracing the legality, if not the reality, of equal rights for women, even on the imperial throne.