By Isabella Green
Japan is widely considered a nation at the forefront of technological innovation; however, beneath the shiny surface of bullet trains and robotic waiters remains a conservative core. This is seen in the most traditional of institutions, the royal family. Japan’s royal family is the oldest in the world; however, the longevity of the monarchy is in an increasingly precarious position. Currently, there are only three people in the line of succession, including the 85-year-old uncle of the current emperor. This was highlighted during the recent nuptials of former Princess Mako, the niece of Emperor Naruhito, daughter of Crown Prince Fumihito, and elder sister to Prince Hisahito. The controversy over her wedding is interesting considering there are very few options for royal women besides marrying commoners, as her relatives have been doing since the reform of the monarchy following WWII. As a female descendant of the previous emperor, she was only entitled to maintain her royal status if she never married a commoner and has always been excluded from the line of succession, along with her cousin and younger sister. The lack of male descendants was a serious concern for the monarchy until her younger brother was born in 2006. Previously there were suggestions of allowing matrilineal descendants to maintain their royal status after marriage or even allow them to ascend to the position of empress. With the birth of Prince Hisahito, this problem can be delayed. It has also been discussed that instead of looking to the remaining female family members, male members of the extended royal family could be considered. While the future of Japan’s monarchy may rest on the small pool of Emperor Hirohito’s male descendants, this problem is emblematic of women’s lack of political representation in Japan.
While there is a dwindling number of males in the royal family, Japanese politics skews heavily male. Despite historical examples of female leadership in politics and religion, these spheres are typically considered exclusionary towards women—contemporary examples of female leadership few and far between. In the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report for 2021, Japan ranked 147 out of the 155 observed economies in political empowerment. This disparity between male and female political participation is demonstrated through the low levels of female political representation, especially in the legislature and the cabinet. One of Japan’s female politicians, Tomomi Inada, claimed, ‘Japan has acquired a reputation as a democracy without women due to its low percentage in the Diet and local governments, and the notion that this job is for men is prevalent.’ The Diet Inada references is only 10% female, explaining the low political empowerment score. While Inada is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Constitutional Democratic Party has made it a goal to promote the inclusion of more female candidates in the upcoming election. Previous attempts to include more women in the political and economic decision-making sphere have had little widespread success, despite being one of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goals while in office. As the former Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe had considerable authority in his party and the political atmosphere. However, during his time in office, there was little change in the percentage of women in government. The barrier to politics is undoubtedly higher for women. It is a significant contributor to the overall low ranking of Japan in the Global Gender Gap Report, despite only a marginal gap in education. With such a low proportion of women in the legislature, there is little hope for a female head of government. As the more cultural role of the royal family has widespread impacts in society, a more egalitarian government might place higher consideration in the idea of incorporating women into a more substantial role in the royal family. The women of Japan have been prevented from attaining the position of head of government with the same effectiveness that they have been categorically excluded from the line of succession. The royal family is a model for society and an ideal to follow. With women in the family undervalued, this gives us insight into the role of women in society as a whole.
Nevertheless, there is hope for Japan heading towards a greater representation of women in government with a goal of 30% female representatives by 2030. However, a change in the law regarding succession to the throne of Japan would support this more egalitarian concept. There have been reigning empresses in Japan’s history and would provide the supporting members that the royal family needs. The government has failed to meet the previous goals for female membership; however, supporting women in the royal family would be a gesture that demonstrates the importance of female empowerment. The royal family has long reflected society and society’s values. A movement towards gender equality in the royal family would promote women’s position in society and politics. While the role of the emperor is now just as a figurehead, his symbolic role as head of state means a great deal to the people. With women legally barred from the role of head of state and indirectly excluded from the head of government, it is difficult to entice potential candidates to run for office. Without any change, the royal family will continue to diminish in number as more women leave through marriages to commoners, and we may see a continuously low percentage of female members of government. Without a major change to the laws regarding who can ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne, membership in the royal family will continue to dwindle. The Japanese public may have been disapproving of Mako Komuro’s marriage; however, in a structure where female descendants are valued less than their male counterparts, it is understandable that one would wish to escape that system.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.