The Press and the Birth of a Royal Baby Girl
John de Boer (University of Tokyo)
Newspapers from East to West rejoiced the birth of a baby girl to Princess Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito. Portrayed were a jubilant Japanese public celebrating the good news by parading through the streets in a lantern light parade Saturday evening. However, after the congratulatory words the debate over whether a female should be allowed to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne took center stage. "Females are barred from ruling," remarked the BBC and, "if no boys are born the world's oldest ruling monarchy…would theoretically become extinct." That is unless the law stipulating that only males can inherit the throne was changed. The debate also reflected a debilitating reality for women in Japan who considered the ban as a prime example of the lack of gender equality. Reported was a critical division between public sentiment that favored a law change and conservative politicians who ruled out the need for such measures. Caught in the middle were those who would ultimately have the final say, the Imperial family.
Public opinion polls quoted in foreign newspapers indicated an overwhelming consensus in favor of an Empress. Australia's Sun Herald reported that 55.2 per cent were in favor of a law change while 32.3 per cent were against. The New York Times quoted a lower objection rate at 22.9 per cent while Linda Sieg of Reuters cited a 71 per cent support rate. "In fact," stated the New York Times, "many Japanese women have expressed hope that the baby would be a girl. A girl they said, could become an important symbol for Japanese women, helping promote their argument for greater equality for women." The AFP quoted a resident of Princess Masako's ancestral town as saying, "given gender equality, a girl should be able to become an emperor." This gave political momentum for opposition members of Parliament such as Kiyomi Tsujimoto to promote long overdue changes in Japan's male dominated society. Howard French of the NYT quoted her saying "don't you think it is strange that only men can occupy the thrown? I certainly think so. It highlights the discrepancy between the sexes in Japanese society. I was in Kyoto station today and heard voices of many women saying they were so sorry that a girl had been born. This shows the low recognition that we give to women in Japan."
In response, conservative politicians such as the LDP's policy chief Taro Aso told the Washington Post, "we are not at a point yet where we can assume that no boys will be born in the future." He was supported by the Imperial Palace doctor Masauki Kawaguchi who determined that, "Masako could still produce a son." (Hans Greimel, AP, Dec. 1). Forces opposing gender equality find problems in issues such as how they will find a royal husband and whether the change would mean an expanded number of royals who would require financial support.
The source of the problem is not historical. The law banning women from assuming the Throne was only adopted in 1948 according to the NYT. The BBC put this date earlier claiming that the ban on female Emperors dates back to the mid-19th century ("No Immediate Change to Japan Succession," Dec. 1). Nevertheless, at least 8 Empresses have ruled Japan. Meanwhile there is confusion among the foreign press as to who the last reigning Empress was. Hans Greimel of AP says its Gosakuramachi (1762), however, the BBC claims that Empress Koken was the last ("Japan Joy at Royal Birth," Dec. 1).
The fact is that there is no legitimate reason why the law should remain. Women have for too long been excluded from fully participating in Japanese society and with the birth of a royal baby girl, the Imperial family has a unique opportunity to lead Japan in taking an important step for women's rights.
- "Happy days for Japan as a princess is born," Sun Herald, December 2, 2001
- Howard W. French, "Japan Royal Birth Stirs Talk of Return to Empress," New York Times, December 2, 2001
- Linda Sieg, "Japan Celebrates Littlest Princess," Reuters, December 1, 2001
- Hans Greimel, "Japan's Crown Princess Gives Birth," The Associated Press, December 1, 2001
- Kathryn Tolbert, "For Japan, It's a Girl," The Washington Post, December 1, 2001
- "Japan joy at royal birth," British Broadcast Corporation, December 1, 2001
- "No 'immediate' change to Japan succession," British Broadcast Corporation, December 1, 2001
- "Japan public jubilant at arrival of baby princess," AFP, December 1, 2001.