Should a princess ascend to the Japanese throne?

Japan debates changing the 2,000-year-old rules of its monarchy.

Published January 23, 2006 3:00PM (EST)

A piece on Friday from Inter Press News Agency addresses the question of whether Japan will change its rules to allow princesses to ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne.

It has become an issue because of the Japanese royal family's failure to produce a male heir in 40 years. The current crown prince and his wife waged a public battle against infertility and finally had a child -- a girl -- four years ago.

The rewriting of the laws of ascension so that the first-born child of an emperor, regardless of gender, would become heir to the imperial throne was recommended by an advisory panel appointed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The proposal will become a bill before the Japanese parliament later this month.

Some argue that such a shift would be pointless and wouldn't make a bit of difference to Japan's attitudes or policies toward women.

Inter Press quotes feminist Chieko Akaishi as saying, "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 symbolizes a feudal system that upholds a top-down system and not a modern democracy."

Mitsuko Yamaguchi, head of the Yamaguchi Memorial Association, a women's rights organization, said that "the appearance of a female empress will bring hope to modern Japanese women who are now facing inequality in the work place and society."

Japan has had eight female monarchs in the past 2,000 years, all widows or single women who stepped down as soon as a male heir became available.

According to Inter Press, the revision to tradition is a popular idea and has the support of 70 percent of people polled in surveys. Some have guessed this enthusiasm has a lot to do with how super-cute 4-year-old princess Aiko is.

But there are conservative detractors, like a cousin of the emperor's, who "see male heirs as the proper way to protect Japan's ancient imperial system" and who are worried that empresses could marry common men and dilute the pure blood of the imperial family, which is touted as the oldest in the world, and can be traced back to Jinmu, who was supposedly descended from the Sun Goddess. Yup, the Sun Goddess. Isn't that ironic?

Apparently, royal men marrying commoners isn't a problem because it's the male blood that counts.

As long as they're revising the system, there's also pressure to change some other long-held imperial traditions: like the one in which when a princess marries a commoner, she is stripped of her royal title and forbidden from ever returning to the palace. This just happened to Princess Nori in November, and some are suggesting that maybe she should be allowed back home -- you know, to visit.

Yes. That does seem like a reasonable idea.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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