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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007

Foes of female reign bask in prince's birth

Male-only succession must be preserved at all cost, conservatives say

Staff writer

"It's a boy!" The news spread like wildfire on red-letter Sept. 6 with the birth of Prince Hisahito, the first male born into the Imperial family in 41 years.

News photo
Prince Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko, smile at photographers as they leave a Tokyo hospital with their newborn son, Prince Hisahito, on Sept. 15. POOL PHOTO

Although blissfully unaware of what responsibilities may lie ahead, Prince Hisahito is third in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, after Crown Prince Naruhito and the baby's father, Prince Akishino.

Over the past few decades, only girls have been born into the Imperial family. Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako had Princess Aiko, while Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko had Princesses Mako and Kako.

Conservative lawmakers let out a sigh of relief with the birth of Prince Hisahito, safe in the knowledge that male-only Imperial succession is safe for now, and debate on female succession was effectively shelved.

But the succession issue remains unresolved, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura said recently.

"For 125 generations over the past 2,000 years, the male paternal line has been unbroken and I believe we should make efforts to maintain this culture and history," Shimomura said in an interview with The Japan Times.

Traditionalists like Shimomura continue to argue that it is essential to maintain the male paternal line in the Imperial system. They stress their belief that Emperor Jinmu was the first monarch, and that he was a descendant of Amaterasu Omikami, the mythical progenitor of the Imperial family and the principal Shinto deity.

Under the Imperial Household Law, only males can assume the throne. There have been eight ruling empresses, but they were all members of the Imperial family on their fathers' side. But since 1889, women have been barred from the throne regardless of blood ties to the emperor.

"(The Imperial succession) is not a matter of the quality of men and women, nor should it be discussed" in that way, said Shimomura, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "Nobody in other countries brings up gender equality against the Dalai Lama and the pope," Shimomura claimed, "and the same should go for the Emperor."

But in recent years, the dearth of male heirs has spawned debate over whether it is time to change the Imperial Household Law and allow females to reign.

In November 2005, an advisory panel to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi submitted a proposal calling for the law to be revised. Koizumi had a bill drafted, based on the proposal, to enable females to ascend the throne. The bill would have made Princess Aiko third in the line of succession and made her descendants heirs as well.

"What was decided (by the panel) did not make any sense to us," LDP lawmaker Yoshinobu Shimamura said. "Koizumi was going to force (the bill through) like he did with postal reform."

The bill to privatize the postal service was also fiercely resisted by conservatives in the LDP.

But news that Princess Kiko, the Crown Prince's sister-in-law, was pregnant broke before the bill to revise the Imperial Household Law was submitted and it "became unnecessary," Shimamura said with a smile. "For us,the birth of Prince Hisahito was an unexpected and auspicious event."

With the male-succession issue still in flux despite the birth of Prince Hisahito, Diet lawmakers formed a cross-party group in October to maintain the male-only Imperial succession rule.

Shimamura, who was a schoolmate of Emperor Akihito at Gakushuin University, chairs the group, which has more than 200 members.

"If (Japan) allows the descendants of females to become emperors, then they would be no different from ordinary citizens. The respect that people have (for the emperor) will become distorted, thereby distorting the Imperial system itself," Shimamura said.

Although no deadline has been set, the group hopes to submit a bill revising the Imperial Household Law as soon as possible to "ensure male lineage for the future."

One way, Shimamura suggested, would be to restore royal status to people who became commoners after World War II. In 1947, during the Allied Occupation, 11 families lost their Imperial status and became ordinary citizens and thus intermingled outside the royal family.

"By increasing the number of (Imperial family members), preserving the male lineage will be a lot easier," Shimamura said.

But others argue the male-only succession is a manifestation of sexual discrimination.

"The Imperial Household Law clearly violates (the United Nations) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women," said Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party. "I believe that (the Imperial system) should treat men and women as equals."

Japan ratified the convention in 1985.

"Celebrating the birth of a boy and being disappointed when it's a girl is behind the times," Fukushima said. "The present Imperial Household Law is similar to the prewar Civil Law, which stated that the male was the heir to a household."

Constitutional expert Koichi Yokota argues the Imperial Household Law violates the Constitution, which says all men and women should be treated as equals. "I believe there is no reason that (the emperor) must be a man," Yokota said.

But gender equality is not the only place where the law clashes with the Constitution, Yokota said.

For example, Article 24 states: "marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes," but under Article 10 of the Imperial Household Law, male members must receive permission to marry, from the Imperial conference, which is presided over by the prime minister.

This is to prevent a future emperor from being blond or of mixed race, and from divorcing, Yokota said. "This is nothing but discrimination."

Yokota said this makes it difficult to argue issues regarding the Imperial family based on constitutional rights, because everything is listed as "an exception" in the Imperial Household Law.

"At the end of the day, it is about what kind of emperor (the public) is seeking," Yokota said. Does it "want someone lovable and open, or someone who is the core of patriotism?"

The LDP's Shimomura said his personal view of the Imperial family is deeply rooted with Japan's traditional culture.

"I believe the Imperial family exists as the source of Japan's identity," he said.

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