Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

The Iron Ceiling and Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne

For a “democracy without women,” what does the imperial succession debate mean for gender parity in Japan?

The Iron Ceiling and Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne
Credit: Depositphotos

In early March, an Oprah Winfrey interview with the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, saw the couple allege instances of institutional racism within the British royal family. The allegations sparked far-reaching debate on the issue of race in wider British society.

In the days following the interview, advocate of U.K. republicanism Jonathan Freedland commented that the monarchy had failed in its response to issues of race introduced by the couple’s marriage. The institution, he claimed, had wasted the opportunity to modernize in line with the highly diverse U.K. of 2021. 

In Japan, an ongoing debate over the imperial succession presents a similar danger of a hallowed institution falling by the wayside. On March 23, an expert panel of historians and imperial household specialists convened to discuss ways to ensure continuity for the Chrysanthemum Throne. Talks are expected to continue beyond the fall. 

Based on an edict first passed during the early Meiji era and reinforced in the postwar Imperial Household Law of 1947, only men may currently become emperor. Women lose their royal status upon marriage, making male children of the matrilineal line equally ineligible. This has reduced the line of succession to two eligible male heirs.

Progressives argue for both allowing female emperors, and for allowing female royals to start their own imperial houses, thus expanding the pool of eligible heirs via the matrilineal line. However, stringent – and powerful – opposition exists.

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Traditionalist conservative factions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) propose the reintegration of tributary branches of the royal family exiled during the postwar period. The male-to-male line, they claim, has remained intact throughout 2,600 years of purported history; the 10 instances of female succession were each special cases and took place during times of transition.

Reintegration, they say, would expand the pool of eligible male heirs through the patrilineal line. This would then avert the national crisis sympathetic news outlets suggest would result from greater female involvement in the succession process.

Such proposals, political scientist Miura Mari argues, are evidence of a framework designed to maintain patriarchal control. “Conservatives wish to maintain this framework as any collapse would of course, for them, amount to a crisis,” she says.

Returning to the U.K. context, Freedland argues that the Harry and Meghan interview reminded the British public that the royal succession is, by default, determined by bloodline. However diverse modern Britain may be, the head of state role is “reserved for members of a single white Protestant family.” 

Acknowledgement of this fact makes the glass ceiling of British society visible for anyone outside that select group. It exposes the framework of race and class biases that continue to structure the way British society functions.

In the Japanese context, the head of state role under current conditions is determined not only by bloodline, but also by gender. Factor in such biases, and the ceiling for women in Japanese society becomes, Miura argues, “one of iron rather than glass.”

There are, Miura continues, “mountains of obstacles blocking the path of any woman trying to reach that iron ceiling.” International and domestic research bodies alike reveal the extent to which these obstacles limit inclusivity.

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Parity Index places Japan at number 120 of 156 countries, citing low female representation in the business sector (14.8 percent of management positions, compared to 40.7 percent in the U.S.) as a contributing factor.  

Another factor, underlined in the government’s own Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality (December 2020), is the relative lack of female representation in politics (9.9 percent in the House of Representatives, compared to 39.5 percent in France).  

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s September 2020 resignation highlighted this lack of representation in the starkest of terms. Only once – current Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko’s unsuccessful bid in 2008 – has a woman attempted to become leader of the LDP. In the race to replace Abe, there were no female candidates. 

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Both former Internal Affairs Minister Noda Seiko and former Defense Minister Inada Tomomi were expected to run. However, candidates require the backing of 20 LDP Diet members, the overwhelming majority of whom are men. A seemingly insurmountable obstacle, Inada’s inability to procure this support led her to dub Japan “a democracy without women.”

Given that eight years of Womenomics – Abe’s drive to create a “Japan in which women can shine” – failed to produce a single female candidate for prime minister, the royal succession debate, for some, presents another chance to address, at least on a symbolic level, the marginalization of women in Japanese society. 

Doshisha University Professor Gill Steel, an expert on gender parity issues in Japanese politics, argues that “allowing women to succeed would certainly not magically improve gender inequality in Japan.” The Emperor, as the ceremonial head of state, occupies a largely symbolic position.

Having said that, symbolism is important. Disallowing women from being the “Symbol of the State and of the Unity of the People,” she says, sends “a powerful message about women’s roles.”

The day after the expert panel first convened to discuss the issue, a Mainichi Shimbun editorial featured the headline: “Answer to imperial succession problem must be based on Japan’s modern values.” Two weeks later, and the same editorial panel ran the headline: “Experts see the Suga gov’t as unlikely to approve a female monarch.”

The feeling persists, as expressed in the latter editorial, that attitudes within government are simply too polarized to come to any agreement on the issue; the Suga administration lacks the necessary mandate to drive such a change.

This is despite polling that suggests that the wider Japanese public is overwhelmingly in favor of both allowing female emperors (85 percent), and for allowing male heirs drawn from the matrilineal line (79 percent). 

Amidst the continuing stalemate, the chance to deliver symbolically on long running pledges of inclusivity diminishes. 

For Freedland, the Harry and Meghan interview exposed the extent to which issues of race and racism influence the British establishment and, by extension, wider society. Genuine inclusivity, he argued, is impossible while a nation’s head of state role continues to be determined by genetic exclusivity.

In Japan, the issue for women is twofold. The obstacles barring the way to a “ceiling made of iron” are only too apparent. They will remain so as long as gender exclusivity determines even the nation’s symbolic roles.