Birth of a new prince clouds succession debate

Monzurul Huq writes from Tokyo
MANY in Japan were aware last Wednesday that an important announcement was to come from the Imperial Household Agency, the powerful Japanese body managing the affairs of the imperial family, about the birth of a child to Princess Kiko, the wife of emperor’s youngest son. But like me, many probably didn’t expect the news to come that early. As I was on board an early morning flight to Fukuoka, the in-flight television news focused on nothing else but the birth of a baby boy to Princess Kiko. For the next couple of days Japan was virtually taken over by the news of the arrival of a male child to the imperial family after a long gap of 41 years. All other important events were side tracked and the media was busy focusing on that single most important issue of the time.

The birth of a male child to the couple, Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, had been anticipated for quite sometime and according to the Imperial Household Agency, the princess gave birth to a boy weighing 2.5 kilograms at 8:27 in the morning of September 6. The boy is yet to get an official name, but already has been placed third on the line in the lineage of imperial succession. The issue of imperial succession has for quite some time been a widely debated topic in Japan that gained momentum when Princess Masako, the wife of Crown Prince Naruhito, had a miscarriage two years ago. Princess Masako’s inability to bear a male child eventually contributed to her depression and withdrawal from the public. It now looks like the birth of a male heir to the chrysanthemum throne will definitely shelve, at least for the time being, the important and politically explosive debate over whether women should be allowed to ascend the throne.

According to Japan’s imperial household law, only males born through the male lineage may ascend the throne. As a result, if the law is not amended in the foreseeable future, the newborn prince will become emperor sometime in the coming days. This would be the first time in Japan’s modern imperial system that the first born of an emperor would eventually be succeeded by the first born of not the crown prince but his younger brother. The issue itself raises few important questions to which Japan needs to find answers not long after the euphoria surrounding the birth of a new prince dies down. But more pressing probably is the issue of female succession to the throne that seems to have been sidelined with the arrival of the new prince, but has not died down totally.

It should be noted that before Princess Kiko’s pregnancy was made public in February, the government planned to revise the imperial household law to pave the way for breaking the male-lineage tradition. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi even formed an advisory panel and the panel’s recommendation submitted to the prime minister in November last year proposed the revision. In its final report the panel of experts recommended that women should be allowed to ascend the throne and allow emperors of female lineage, thereby giving priority to the firstborn child of direct lineage, irrespective of the sex of the child. As the recommendations of the panel were reviewed extensively by the media and discussed widely among scholars as well as ordinary citizens, many fell in with the idea of female succession, as it also supposed to ensure gender equality at all levels of Japanese society.

But the proposal of female succession had also sparked strong criticism from conservative members of Japan’s main ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as well as of some members of the extended imperial family. To stop the possibility of any female succession to the throne, some within that conservative circle even suggested possible solutions that included among others, resurrection of other branches of the imperial family that were abolished after World War II. Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a cousin of the present emperor went even further and suggested that the concubine system, which in the past made available to the emperors child-bearing women, should be revived. As the debate was intensifying with both camps coming up with new arguments in favor of their respective positions, then, out of the blue, came the news of Princess Kiko’s pregnancy. As a result, there was a logical outcome of taking a back seat and waiting for the arrival of the child. As the date of the birth of the child was drawing nearer, the proposed bill was put on hold and even the prime minister, who earlier sounded enthusiastic about the proposal of female succession, also suddenly took a backward turn and declared that a revision of the imperial household law would not be necessary if the child turns out to be a boy.

No doubt it is those various groups of conservatives who were voicing their strong opposition to the female succession are now mostly pleased with the news of the birth of the boy. For them the birth would not only smoothen the way to male succession, but also would thwart the efforts of those who were willing to see that the gender equality issue also reaches the highest level of country’s system in the long run. And there are no shortage of such enthusiasts too who are feeling extremely relieved with the news of the arrival of a new prince. One of them is the Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, seen by many as the possible successor of Koizumi in coming days. On the same day the news of the birth was announced, Abe effectively called for an end to the proposed revision, saying the debate should proceed carefully and cool-headedly.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government has already announced that it would drop plans to introduce legislation allowing female succession in the imperial line. The government also made it clear that all official discussion surrounding the proposed revision of the law would be shelved for the foreseeable future. As a result, the new born prince has somehow created a division within the Japanese society in which there are also no shortage of those who find it quite strange that the debate over an issue they think to be a very timely one should be put on hold indefinitely just because a male heir to the throne has been born. Many belonging to this camp simply don’t see the issue as one surrounding the inability of bearing a male child by Princess Masako. For them it is more a matter of gender equality and they feel that as long as equality at all levels can be assured, Japan would painfully run short of achieving a very important milestone that might make all other achievements in this particular field empty and hollow.

Women in Japan have by now been guaranteed many of the rights that in earlier days were the exclusive prerogatives of men. Women also are making significant contribution to the society. It should be noted that more than half of all Japanese households now depend upon two incomes and women account for ten percent of seats in national legislature. Yet, Japanese women are now set to go a long way to break many more taboos that in places seem to be extremely hard to crack.

Monzurul Huq is a Daily Star columnist.

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