Why Should a Feminist Care about What Goes on Behind the Chrysanthemum Curtain? The Imperial Succession Issue as a Metaphor for Women’s Right

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Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


Crown Princess Masako’s life course—a career followed by becoming the mother of a single child—makes her a symbol of the modern Japanese gender dilemma. Masako was a rising star in the Foreign Ministry, courted for years by the Crown Prince Naruhito before she agreed, at age 30, to marry him. In many ways, this was a typical pattern for young professionals. Masako had additional reasons for hesitating to marry; unlike other professional women, she would not just be compromising her career, she would also be subjected to the imperial family’s need to produce an heir. This she has not done. Her three-year-old is a girl, Princess Aiko, and the Imperial Succession Law of 1947 stipulates that only a son born to a male related to an emperor may inherit the throne. (Naruhito’s brother Fumihito is married, but both of his children are girls, and any children his sister Sayako may have when she marries in November 2005 cannot under current law inherit the throne). In January, 2005, a blue-ribbon panel of eight men and two women, all but two in their 70s (the other two are in their 60s), was appointed to study changing the law. A decade ago, only 33 percent of the Japanese people supported a female emperor; now 87 percent do.1 This may very well reflect desperation; without a female emperor, the institution will die out. Of course, some people question why a democracy needs a monarch, although this sentiment, while common in the past, has dissipated lately. For others, the notion that any job is limited by gender is outmoded. If women can hold any job—an opinion espoused by most Japanese though not practiced in business or politics—why not the throne as well? Here we see the intersection of several gender dilemmas: first, the clash between the modern feminist attitude that Japanese men and women should be able to hold any job, on the one hand, and what some people view as “tradition,” that is, the male principle in inheriting the throne, on the other; and second, the belief held by many modern women, as we have seen above, that marriage and career are so incompatible that marriage and especially motherhood should be postponed as long as possible. Crown Princess Masako and her daughter Aiko embody both of those dilemmas.

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Japanese Women: Lineage and Legacies


Amy Thernstrom