It's a Boy! And Japan Misses an Opportunity

The much-welcomed birth of a male heir to the imperial throne sidetracks a fruitful debate over female successionand women's role in society

It's a boy! One could easily imagine Japan's archconservative cultural set rejoicing with a rousing "banzai" cheer at the news. On Sept. 6, Princess Kiko, wife of the Japanese emperor's younger son, gave birth to a boy, breaking a more than four-decade run in which the Japanese royal family had failed to produce a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The royal line looks like it will continue for another generation. Crisis averted.

And make no mistake: This was a cultural crisis for traditionally minded Japanese who had worried that—horror of horrors—the country might have to break tradition and pass legislation in the Diet to let a woman succeed to the top rung of Japanese royalty. That debate has been put aside for now with the arrival of a healthy, still-unnamed tot who measured 48.8 cm (19.2 in.) and weighed 2.5 kg (5 lbs., 10 oz.). The little one is now third in line to the throne behind his father, Prince Akishino, and the heir apparent Crown Prince Naruhito, the elder son of Emperor Akihito.

But while the population at large seemed in a celebratory mood, there was one reason to be less optimistic. The whole debate earlier this year over whether little Princess Aiko, the four-year-old daughter of Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, could be eligible to sit atop the throne really touched a larger and emotionally charged issue about the role of Japanese women in this relatively conservative society.

Outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi learned that the hard way earlier this year when he proposed revisions to the postwar Imperial House Law, which bans women from ascending to the throne. The legislation—which had the backing of many Japanese voters in opinion polls—would have given women equal rights to the title. Conservative elements in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), academia, and the press basically went ballistic at the very idea of the change.


  While women have sat on the throne in the past, it's been centuries since that happened. The last one to do so was Go-Sakuramachi, who reigned from 1762 to 1770. The reason why Japan was even considering change was that Naruhito, 46, and Masako, 42, have only one child and didn't seem likely to produce another. Naruhito's younger brother, Akishino, has two daughters—and now, of course, a son.

Koizumi ultimately beat a fast retreat and dropped the idea when he sized up the opposition. He is set to depart from the premier's seat later this month. His likely successor, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, isn't likely to touch a radioactive issue like this one early in his tenure, given the need to secure his base in the LDP. After the announcement of the birth, Abe told reporters, "It's important for us to discuss the issue calmly and carefully."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of any legislative changes, which, in any case would be very tough to push through the Japanese Diet. "The legislation can't survive in its current form," says Koichi Yokota, professor of constitutional law at Ryutsu Keizai University. "The next prime minister will have to start from scratch."

All this is a setback for liberals who had hoped that a change in the most traditional of Japan's institutions would symbolize a shift toward equal opportunities for women. Though there's been some progress, Japanese women still seldom make it to top government posts or corporate boards of directors. And, overall, only 55% of women work in Japan, vs. about 62% in the U.S.


  The scarcity of working women is one reason Japanese policymakers have failed to combat a shrinking workforce in the world's second-largest economy. Labor shortages are a familiar topic in a country where the birth rate has been hovering at levels too low to prevent the population, at around 127 million, from declining. In 2005, Japan recorded its lowest birth rate ever—a mere 1.25 babies per woman over her lifetime. Meanwhile, the number of elderly is soaring and the rickety public pension system is in trouble.

In the past, the arrival of a new royal has triggered boomlets in the birth rate. Many in Japan still consider it auspicious to have a child born in the same year as a member of the imperial family. Anticipating more births, investors caused shares of baby-food maker Pigeon Corp. and stroller maker Combi Corp. to shoot up in recent weeks. But any long-term positive impact is likely to be fleeting. "I doubt a temporary rise in the birth rate could reverse the downtrend in Japan's population," says Akihiko Matsutani, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

All this talk of winners and losers overlooks the one person who may be happy to be out of the spotlight: Crown Princess Masako. The Harvard-educated former diplomat had been under intense pressure from her imperial handlers to give birth to a male heir, and had suffered from bouts of stress-induced depression in recent years. She's now finally off the hook.

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