Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, made history last week as he took the Chrysanthemum Throne a day after his father, Emperor Akihito, abdicated. Akihito is the first emperor to abdicate in over 200 years.
However, the ceremony was important for another reason, as well. For the first time in the modern era, a woman was present at the event. Her name is Satsuki Katayama and she is the sole woman in the cabinet of the prime minister. Not even his wife was anywhere to be found, while Naruhito received the sword, jewels, and official seals. She was not allowed into the ceremony because she was a woman in the imperial family.
Under the Imperial Household Law, women in the royal family are not permitted in the room when the new emperor receives the sacred regalia. Women are also not allowed to reign. Once these women marry, they must officially leave the royal family and none of their children can be in line to the throne.
This has created a serious problem for the future of the Japanese royal family. There are only three heirs, including 83-year-old Prince Hitachi, 53-year-old Prince Akishino, and 12-year-old Prince Hisahito. Naruhito’s 17-year-old daughter, Princess Aiko, will not be able to take the throne, despite being his only child.
When Japan passed a one-time law allowing Emperor Akihito to abdicate, an addendum encouraged the government to study reforms allowing women in the royal family to stay in the family after they marry, as well as granting women the right to head legitimate lines of succession.
Because of conservative pressure, the addendum didn’t mention women sitting on the throne.
It is hoped that Naruhito will push further advancements for women in the imperial family, despite the fears of lost legitimacy for the royal family if a woman were to take the throne.
Despite these fears, women taking the throne is not a new concept. Kathryn Tanaka, an associate professor of cultural and historical studies at Otemae University in Nishinomiya, Japan, said, “The idea that succession is limited to males is a modern invention. This is not about ‘tradition,’ but rather reflects specific political and patriarchal world views.”
The idea that only men can rule the Japanese throne comes from the 19th century. Before that, eight women ruled when no man was available. Despite conservative efforts, the public is more supportive of women than the royal family. More than three quarters of those surveyed said they would support a woman emperor.
The Japanese imperial family is lagging behind other Asian countries, who have had female leaders in the modern era, as well as other countries like Britain who have had a female monarch at its head of state for over fifty years. It was hoped that Naruhito’s wife, Masako, would change things as a rising diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Ministry. However, once she became a princess, she gave up her career and faced intense pressure to produce a male heir. Because of this, she’s stayed out of the public eye in recent years.
For now, it looks like progress for women will be slow, but as long as women in Japan continue to speak up for their rights, there is hope for the royal family.