Why are there no Empresses in Japan?

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women made headlines recently after deciding to remove criticism about Japan’s male-only imperial succession. The reaction in Tokyo, and the U.N. committees decision to amend the report, have riled up many in the international community such as activist and columnist Arudo Debito. Tokyo’s rejection of the criticism, according to cabinet secretary Suga, is based on the notion that “The Imperial system of our country and the royal systems of various countries have always been based on popular support and reflect the history and traditions of each country.” Unfortunately for Suga, neither of these statements are entirely true. In a 2012 poll conducted by Kyodo News, 66% of Japanese people support the idea of female succession to the throne. So much for the “based on popular support” notion. So what of the “history and traditions” argument?

Ruling empresses are certainly not without historical precedent. There have been eight ruling empresses throughout history, with two of those empresses ruling more than once. Japanese imperial history, like the histories of many royal families, is peppered with a bit of myth. If we include that as well, there are even more empresses regnant to add to the roster. In fact the entire imperial line, dating back to 660BCE, is supposedly descended from the goddess Amaterasu. Conservative historians will claim that these empresses regnant were merely place holders until a suitable heir could be found. Admittedly, most of the 8 reigning empresses ruled for less than ten years, with the majority of them abdicating their throne to a relative. Still, the precedent exists, as a challenge to the current system of “agnastic seniority”, wherein only male heirs are permitted to succeed the throne, with preference given to the older generation.

So if the “popular support” and “historical precedence” arguments do not hold water, surely the “traditional values” argument must. On this point, Suga is right – the current policy is based on national tradition, just not Japanese national tradition. The laws governing imperial succession are in fact based on German, or to be more precise, Prussian tradition – namely the teachings of Hegel.

The policy of male-only primogeniture can be traced back to the 1889 Meiji Constitution, which was heavily influenced by the Prussian system. One of the major proponents of the Meiji constitution was Tatsukichi Minobe. In his book Japan’s Holy War: The Ideology of Radical Shinto Ultranationalism, Walter Skya writes that “Minobe’s Constitution of Japan (Nihon Kempo) was virtually Allgemiene Staatslehre, Georg Jellinek’s work on state law.” Sky describes how many intellectuals in Meiji era Japan favored a sort of populist constitutional monarchy similar to England or France, but that Prussian monarchy was favored by oligarchs (mostly former Samurai) who wanted to retain their control over the country. Skya describes how the “military elite holding political power wanted to preserve control over the state, eventually opting for the Prussian-inspired Constitution of the Empire of Japan, which they thought would allow them to have legal authority to do this.” In other words, the reason for adopting the laws that currently regulate imperial succession, in fact had very little to do with the emperor at all. They were implemented to make sure the rich and powerful, stayed rich and powerful. As Sky writes, “the basic means adopted for consolidating the oligarchy’s domestic position was a variant of mid-century official nationalism, rather consciously modeled on Hohenzollern Prussia-Germany.”

At the end of World War Two, these laws were upheld and in fact further expanded with the 1947 Imperial Household Law. This law, which is now being hotly debated, forbid the emperor from adoption, excluded many branches of the imperial family, and outlawed polygamy, a long-practiced means to ensuring male heirs. It is this law that is often cited as the basis of the current male-only restriction, but this law was also created by the American occupying forces – in other words not Japanese tradition. The law was created to reduce the burden on the people of the swollen Imperial family by trimming away large chunks of it. It was also created to restrict the powers of the Emperor, in lieu of actually removing him. In this light, it makes it all the more curious that the conservative right wants to protect these regulations, while they try to dismantle every other vestige of American-imposed constitutionalism.

Varying viewpoints have emerged on how to handle the current crisis of only one male heir, Emperor Akihito’s grandson Prince Hisahito. The proposal of conservatives is to reinstate the branches of the family that were excluded and allow adoption of distant relatives. On the opposite side of the spectrum, people are calling for absolute primogeniture, meaning not only female succession, but allowing matrilinial succession (including children who share no blood with the current Emperor). The moderate approach, shared by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is to allow female heirs to retain their imperial status even after marriage – something currently forbidden. Although several hearings have been held and legislation has been introduced, a consensus has yet to be reached as to what to do.

Gender equality is certainly an important problem in Japanese society, and empowering women is one of the stated goals of the current administration. Japan consistently lags behind many other nations in terms of gender equality, especially in government. According to a 2015 survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japan came in an abysmal 119 out of 190 countries, well below its neighbors in China and even North Korea. Perhaps Suga was right to push back on criticism of Imperial succession, when bigger issues face the nation. For example, Suga’s own party, the Liberal Democratic Party has a paltry 8.6% representation of women. Indeed, criticism should be pointed at society at large, and the government in specific which effects over 60 million Japanese women, rather than policies which affect at current three princesses. No offense to Princesses Aiko, Mako and Kako.

So Secretary Suga, I have fixed your statement: “The Imperial system of our country… is based on popular support [that no longer exists] and [ignores inconvenient] history and [instead follows] traditions of [Prussia – a monarchy that no longer exists]”