Japan took a big step on Thursday toward clearing the path for three-year-old Princess Aiko to become its first reigning empress in centuries, a break with tradition that the vast majority of Japanese would welcome.
A panel of experts formally recommended to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Japan’s imperial succession law be amended to give women the same rights as men to inherit the throne, allowing the eldest child to inherit regardless of gender.
The change would resolve a looming succession crisis created by a dearth of royal males. No boys have been born into the royal family in four decades. Emperor Akihito is 71, and while he has two sons, all his grandchildren are girls.
“I hope from my heart that this will be widely accepted by the public and contribute to stable imperial succession,” Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, head of the advisory panel, told a news conference.
Conservatives keen to preserve a males-only imperial line they say stretches back 2,600 years oppose the change, but surveys show most ordinary Japanese support it.
“In the current era, discriminating between men and women is nonsense. said Mariko Maruyama, a 56-year-old housewife.
“I also think the heir should be the first-born child whether boy or girl so you can prepare them,” she said. “Otherwise, life could change too suddenly for them, which would be really rough.”
The complex training of an heir for a role devoid of political power but steeped in tradition and ritual typically begins around the age of three. Aiko turns four on Dec. 1.
Koizumi called the panel’s recommendations “very meaningful” and added that he envisaged submitting a bill based on the report to parliament next year.
Asked what he thought about opposition in some quarters to the panel’s recommendations, Koizumi said: “I would like there to be sufficient debate (in parliament) so we can gain understanding from most of the public.”
The birth of a daughter to Crown Prince Felipe of Spain has set off a similar debate there about changing the constitution to allow a first-born female to ascend the throne even if a royal son is born later.
Relief for Crown Princess Masako
Revising the 1947 imperial succession law would be likely to bring Aiko’s mother, Crown Princess Masako, some welcome relief.
Masako, 41, has been largely absent from the public eye for the past two years, suffering from a mental disorder caused by the stress of adapting to palace life.
Pressure to produce a male heir weighed heavily on the once vibrant Masako, a Harvard-educated former career diplomat, royal watchers say.
“The current system is really hard on women,” said Ayako Yamakawa, a housewife in her 50s. “Many of them become ill from the pressure of it -- Masako certainly did.
Japan has had eight reigning empresses, the last in the 18th century, but traditionalists stress that none of them passed on the throne to her own child so the male lineage was preserved.
Conservatives argue that rather than breaking tradition, princely houses abolished after World War II should be revived and a male heir found among their ranks. Some have even suggested that the practice of royal concubines be brought back.
“If you could find a scientific way of guaranteeing the birth of a boy, I think boys should have precedence,” said Kazuhiro Ichikawa, 30, who works for a communications firm.
“But without that, a woman would just have to keep on having children until she had a boy, which is really too much for any person to put up with.”
The panel also recommended that female royals who marry commoners should no longer have to relinquish their status as members of the imperial family and that their husbands and children should be included in the royal family.
Not all taxpayers were thrilled about that costly plan.
“Supporting them takes our tax money, so I think that they should leave,” Ichikawa said.