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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

IN HER OWN RIGHT

Case for a woman on the throne


more stories
Society What Japan's royals can do to keep it all in the family
THE IMPERIAL HOUSE LAW states clearly: the throne "shall be inherited by a male of patrilineal imperial descent." But it was not always so. Through Japanese history, eight women have ruled as empresses in their own right. The most recent was Empress Go-Sakuramachi (1762-1771), who abdicated when a male royal came of suitable age. Is there any reason a woman could not reign in the next millennium?

Japan's "salic" law is in fact not all that ancient. It dates from the beginning of the Meiji Era (1867-1912). As they did with other issues, the Meiji modernizers studied European institutions - in which both male and female descendants are usually of equal royal status. But the drafters of the first Imperial House Law decided not to allow women to ascend the throne in order to preserve the single line that, according to legend, is descended from the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami.

In the English language, the titles of emperor and empress imply a certain equality, at least of royal blood, that is not apparent in Japan. The Japanese title of the imperial consort is kogo, which, though usually translated as empress, literally means only "the wife of the emperor." But there is another word for a woman who is enthroned as an empress in her own right: jyotei.

The roots of the current succession problem go back to the 1947 Imperial House Law, which was written during the U.S. Occupation in the confused aftermath of World War II. Like its Meiji precedent, the law maintained male-only succession. That was a curious anomaly. After all, the American-drafted post-war Constitution enshrined sexual equality and laws that opened the Diet to female representatives. The U.S. 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 one reason the current monarch and his son chose commoners for their brides - there was literally nobody else outside the immediate family to marry.

Still, the Imperial House Law is just that, a law. It can be changed by a simple majority vote in parliament. Opinion polls show that Japanese are increasingly willing to accept a female head-of-state. A survey conducted last year found 50% in favor of allowing women to succeed and only 30% opposed. That was a dramatic change from a 1992 poll which had shown only 32% in favor and 47% opposed.

Increasingly, attention focuses on Princess Mako, the eldest grand-daughter of Emperor Akihito. The seven-year-old is a pupil at the Gakushuin School, where all imperial children study. For all of the attention that Masako receives, she can never be more than the emperor's consort. So little Mako could grow up to become Japan's first empress regnant in more than 200 years.

- By Todd Crowell and Murakami Mutsuko


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