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Sunday, Dec. 8, 2002

MEDIA MIX

It can be a royal pain to be in the family


Bowing to the media's ongoing obsession with the returned abductees, the first birthday of Princess Aiko passed with little more than token coverage.

Even the "wide shows," which normally give full coverage to any Imperial "happening," demonstrated only nominal interest in the anniversary, airing the official videotape and inviting the usual celebrities to coo and smile.

None of them commented on Princess Aiko's own talent for cooing and smiling, not to mention waving, which, considering her potential future as a symbol of the nation, was truly precocious. Though it's impossible to tell if she's been coached, the possibility that she has gives rise to questions that have been ignored, at least by the mainstream media.

Most of them even ignored the Jiji Press survey, conducted just before the royal birthday, about the possibility of a woman on the Chrysanthemum Throne. Seventy percent of the respondents said they approved of a female tenno, which could only come about through a change in the Koshitsu Tenpan, the Imperial Household Act, which mandates the rules for succession. As it stands, only a male can ascend to the throne.

The male-only law, however, has only been in effect since the Meiji Restoration. Of the 125 persons who have occupied the throne in Japan's 2,700-year history, eight have been females, and many of the hidden rituals associated with the emperor's office are in service to a goddess, Amaterasu.

Traditionally, Japan is a matriarchy bokei -- family lines pass through the mother by birth. The Koshitsu Tenpan mandated lineage through the male side. The new family registry system basically codified the idea that all Japanese citizens were children of the emperor.

Some Japanese feminists have pointed to this patriarchal system as the basis for the second-class status of women in Japan and have welcomed the prospect of a female tenno, since it would necessitate changes in the law regarding gender discrimination. But last Sunday, an ad hoc group held a seminar at Waseda University to discuss whether the ascension of a female tenno would really bring about gender equality.

The conclusion was "no." The conservative forces in the government aren't really opposed to a female tenno, per se, since the law can be manipulated in such a way that a woman can simply be installed on the throne as a caretaker (or, in the parlance of the seminar, a "pinch hitter") until a male heir is produced. The main problem these people have with changing the law is how it will affect the makeup of the Imperial family itself.

Any law that permits a female tenno will increase the size of the Imperial family. Though the so-called purity of the Japanese Imperial family is a joke (30 percent of the Edo Period emperors were not related to the blood line) die-hards consider it somehow unseemly for the husband of a possible female tenno to be considered a royal. Empress Michiko and Princess Masako, both commoners, left their families when they married, but that's OK because according to the patriarchal system women are supposed to enter into the families of their husbands. The system makes no sense when the opposite occurs. (Men are allowed to "enter" the family registers of their wives, but it is discouraged and only occurs in 2 percent of marriages.)

The other option is to allow the Emperor Akihito's daughter, Princess Nori, to remain in the Imperial family after she marries. As it stands, she will have to leave when she weds. However, since she can still produce a male heir, her potential service to the line is considerable. The question again is, what to do about her husband?

At this point, the options are quickly dwindling. The fact that people within the government are discussing them in detail would seem to indicate that neither the Crown Prince nor his brother plan to have any more babies. If we assume that the Emperor lives at least another 10 years, then the Crown Prince will be in his 50s when he assumes the throne, with his brother a few years behind. The thing about a future tenno is that he (or she) must begin training at an early age, which may account for Princess Aiko's early facility with a smile and a wave in front of the cameras.

Oh, for the days when such problems could be solved backstage, as they are on NHK's Sunday night historical epics. The people behind the scenes understand all too well how difficult it is to manage a proper Imperial family in today's media environment. How long did it take the current Crown Prince to find a bride? How long will it take Princess Nori to find a husband?

The Imperial family no longer excites Shakespearean dreams of ambition. The same feminists who now think it might be great if there were a female tenno are the same ones who cheered when "career woman" Masako Owada married the Crown Prince. Her eventual capitulation to the self-negation of the position did nothing for gender equality, and the benefits for her family are debatable. Her sister used to work for Honda in a job considered beneath her station as a royal relative, so she was whisked off to the University of Tokyo graduate school, a scheme that family register expert Bunmei Sato, who spoke at the seminar, referred to as "career laundering."

And while the media has promised the Imperial Household Agency that they will not stalk Princess Nori's potential husbands, the fact that she turns 34 next year with no prospects in sight indicates that no man wants to risk finding out if they will. Who can blame them? The people at the seminar called for the abolition of the emperor-based family register system because it encourages discrimination, but the more common-sense reason for letting it go is that no one wants the job any more.



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