Reform versus Tradition


“I am very glad that the prince was born,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe – tipped to become Japan’s next prime minister when Junichiro Koizumi steps down sometime this year – “I truly feel relieved and happy to receive a report that both the princess and the prince are fine. It’s a refreshing feeling that reminds us of a clear autumn sky.” But will the immediate joy surrounding the birth of Prince Hisahito resolve Japan’s royal crisis? After several years of forlorn expectations waiting for Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako to produce a second male child, which would have maintained the line of succession for Japan’s chrysanthemum throne, it has fallen to Emperor Akihito’s second son, Prince Akishino, and his wife, Princess Kiko, to end the immediate succession crisis. The issue of male succession, which many and not least in Japan itself, see as anachronistic in the 21st century has become a major political and socio-cultural issue. The question now is whether or not the birth of a son in the male line has really banished the clouds of uncertainty or will the pressures of modernity and youth ultimately prevail. Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko’s third child – they have two daughters: Princess Mako, born October 23, 1991, and Princess Kako, born December 29, 1994 – arrived on September 6, 2006, at 8:27 a.m. (Japan Standard Time). The child weighed 5 lb 10 oz at birth. The baby boy named Prince Hisahito of Akishino is the first male heir to be born into the imperial family in 41 years. Naturally, the birth was a joyful moment, not just for the Imperial Family but the nation as a whole, with millions glued to their TV sets waiting for the news. There had been a small degree of anxiety as Princess Kiko had suffered from placenta previa. In the event all went well and Masao Nakabayashi, Director of Tokyo’s Aiiku Hospital, explained the delivery at a press conference held at the Imperial Household Agency: “Since she was suffering from partial placenta previa (a condition in which part of the placenta drops too low in the uterus), she could have bled from her 28th week of pregnancy, so she needed to rest. “The Prince and Princess agreed to place top priority on taking medical precautions. To prepare for possible bleeding, she was hospitalised early. She never bled and we were fully prepared for the delivery. They [Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko] followed our recommendations that she refrain from performing her official duties. The Princess said she would take everything optimistically and agreed to follow doctors’ instructions. She was a good patient. The baby boy is in good condition. When I told the Princess, ‘The operation is complete. Congratulations. How are you feeling?’ she said, ‘Thank you very much. I’m feeling fine.’ She is recovering steadily.”

Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko present newborn son, Prince Hisahito, to the waiting media.

Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko present newborn son, Prince Hisahito, to the waiting media.

Whilst they now find themselves at the centre of the succession debate, the royal couple themselves are personable, popular and far from controversial. Prince Akishino was born on 30 November, 1965, at the Aoyama Detached Palace in Tokyo. His given name is Fumihito and his childhood appellation was Prince Aya (Aya-no-miya). He attended the Gakushuin aka Peers School, which was established in the late nineteenth century to educate the Japanese aristocracy. The school later opened its doors to the offspring of wealthy commoners. Famous students include the late Emperor Hirohito; the current emperor, Akihito; the author Yukio Mishima, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature whose groundbreaking novels challenged Japanese traditionalism; and John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono. In April 1984 Prince Akishino enrolled at the Law Department of Gakushuin University to study law and biology. After graduation, he continued his studies in England on the taxonomy [the classification of living organisms]of fish at St John’s College, Oxford University, from October 1988 to June 1990. Prince Akishino’s academic track record is excellent. He has a Ph.D. in ornithology from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies, for which his doctoral dissertation was the impressively scientific sounding, ‘Molecular Phylogeny of Jungle fowls, genus Gallus and Monophyletic Origin of Domestic Fowls’. He also undertook field research in Indonesia and in the Yunnan Province of China; along with introducing tilapia fishes to Thailand, which can be an important source of protein for a nation still struggling with widespread poverty. Prince Akishino’s interest in fish has earned him the nickname of ‘catfish specialist’. His tastes in music are modern if not bang up to date, he is a big Beatles fan, and he is also an enthusiastic and talented tennis player. During his student days he was ranked in the top ten of doubles player in the Kanto region, the largest of the islands that comprise Japan. On June 29, 1990, Prince Akishino married Kawashima Kiko, daughter of Kawashima Tatsuhiko, Professor of Geology at Gakushuin University, and his wife, Kazuko. As a child Kawashima Kiko was nicknamed ‘Kiki’ by friends and relatives. Her preschool years were spent in the United States, where her father gained a PhD in Regional Economy from the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently took up a teaching post. When her father became the chief researcher at The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, Kiko was sent to elementary and high school in the capital, Vienna,. During these years Kiko became fluent in English and German. Prince Akishino and Kiko fell in love during their time as students at Gakushuin University. Their first meeting was at a university bookstore in 1985. Prince Akishino proposed a year later. However, it was another three years before their intention to marry was made public and approval from the Imperial Household Council was needed before marriage to a commoner was sanctioned.

In this regard, Akishino was following in his father Emperor Akihito’s footsteps by marrying a commoner, which in Japanese terms is defined by taking a bride from outside the former aristocracy and former collateral branches of the imperial family. The wedding was held at the Imperial Palace. Although Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko are seen by conservatives as having saved the monarchy from a disastrous reform – some even feel the unity of the nation is threatened if the line of male succession were to be broken – their marriage was in itself an act of modernisation, one which broke with precedent in several respects. At the time the groom was still a graduate student at Gakushuin University and married before his elder brother, Crown Prince Naruhito. Secondly, Kiko was the first woman from a middle-class background to marry into the imperial family. Empress Michiko was technically a commoner but from a very wealthy family: her father was the president of a large flour-milling company. The engagement and marriage was also known to be an affair of the heart rather than the head. Since marrying the couple have balanced their public duties and academic responsibilities while maintaining a happy home. Princess Kiko continued her post-graduate studies in psychology and received her MA in Psychology in 1995. She has won admirers for her interest in the deaf and is a skilled sign-language interpreter. She also serves as the president of the Japanese Anti-Tuberculosis Association and is the honourary vice-president of the Japanese Red Cross Society. Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko have built a solid relationship and achieved the goals they set themselves when they married. Announcing the engagement in 1989 Akishino said: “I hope many people will give us advice that will let us build a happy family. As a member of the imperial family, I will do my best in all the duties to be given to me.” To which Kiko added, “I’d like to create a relaxed, cheerful, harmonious family.” There is, therefore, no reason to think that Prince Akishino is trying to usurp his brother, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his wife, Crown Princess Masako. Nonetheless, the struggle between conservatives and reformers has taken its toll on Masako, whose role in the traditional scheme of things was simple: to provide a male heir.

Indeed, if it were not for the pressure over the succession crisis Masako’s personal crisis might not have developed. She was born Masako Owada on December 9, 1963, the eldest daughter of a senior diplomat, Hisashi Owada. Masako’s childhood was itinerant. Aged two she went to live in Moscow with her parents. Returning to Japan she attended a private girl’s school in Tokyo. The family subsequently moved to the United States when her father became a guest professor at Harvard University. Masako continued her education in the US and graduated from Belmont High School in Belmont, Massachusetts, where she achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average and she was also President of the National Honour Society. Princess Masako is highly educated, with a BA in Economics from Harvard University. She also attended a graduate course in International Relations at Oxford University’s Balliol College and studied briefly at the University of Tokyo. Masako’s career in international diplomacy was very successful. Her fluent English saw her hired by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she worked alongside her father and met many world leaders such as U.S. president Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin. She also took part as a translator in negotiations with the U.S. concerning superconductors. Masako first met the Crown Prince when she was studying at the University of Tokyo in November of 1986. Throughout 1987 the couple were spotted many times in public, but marriage prospects were briefly threatened when a controversy blew up surrounding the issue of her grandfather, who was Chairman of Chisso, infamous for the Minamata disease pollution scandal, which centred around the company’s long term pollution of Minamata Bay. The relationship continued to deepen, but it has been suggested that Masako refused Naruhito’s marriage proposals at least twice, worried that she would lose her career. Finally, Masako agreed and the Imperial Palace announced the engagement on January 19, 1993, which was rather a surprise to the Japanese public that had gained the impression that the relationship had ended sometime previously. The traditional wedding was held June 9, 1993, after Masako had been thoroughly instructed on the rules and culture of the Imperial Court, which is controlled by the Imperial Household Agency. And there, it seems, Masako’s fairytale ends. Her life as Japan’s future empress has been dominated by the failure to produce an heir and her long standing unhappiness at the restrictions surrounding the royal family. In particular, she is said to be at loggerheads with the Imperial Household Agency, the stronghold of traditionalism which still controls much of the royal family’s lives, despite Emperor Akihito’s attempts to modernise. It is the confrontation between tradition and modernity that lies behind the succession crisis. Crown Princess Masako has become a victim of the struggle and Princess Kiko has, seemingly, provided the solution. But the issue is far from over as Prime Minister Koizumi’s now shelved reforms were as much to do with public opinion as royal reform. Opinion polls have consistently shown a large majority in favour of allowing females to ascend the throne. Certainly, continuing with male-only succession seems beyond comprehension to younger Japanese.

If the entrenched conservatism that resists change looks back across two-thousand six hundred years of imperial history (although historians generally date the dynasty from the 5th century AD), the current law of succession only dates back to 1947. The Imperial Household Law was passed during the Showa era and states: “The Imperial Throne of Japan shall be succeeded to by male descendants in the male line of Imperial Ancestors.” The line of succession is detailed in Article 2: o The eldest son of the Emperor. o The eldest son of the Emperor’s eldest son. o Other descendants of the eldest son of the Emperor. o The second son of the Emperor and his descendants. o Other descendants of the Emperor. o Brothers of the Emperor and their descendants. o Uncles of the Emperor and their descendants. All of which overlooks some inconvenient aspects of dynastic history. Six women have ruled as ‘tennõ’, (i.e. reigning empresses) on eight occasions. Two empresses reascended the throne after abdicating and reigned under different names. The reign of the last Japanese empress was in 1771, when Empress Go-Sakuramachi abdicated in favour of her nephew, Emperor Go-Momozono. The ruling empresses have been: o Empress Suiko (Suiko Tennõ) was the first woman to hold this position, from 593 until 628. o Empress Kogyoku (Kõgyoku Tennõ), also Empress Saimei (Saimei Tennõ) ruled from February 18, 642, to July 12, 645. She reascended the throne as Empress Saimei on February 14, 655, and ruled until her death on August 24, 661. o Empress Jito (JitóTennõ) who ruled from 686 until 697. o Empress Koken (Kõken Tennõ) also Empress Shõtoku (Shõtoku Tennõ) ruled from 749 to 758. She reascended the throne in 764 and ruled until 770. Her posthumous name for her second reign (764-770) was Empress Shotoku. o Empress Meisho (Meishõ Tennõ) ruled from December 22, 1629 to November 14, 1643. o Empress Go-Sakuramachi (Go-Sakuramachi Tennõ) was the 117th imperial ruler of Japan, and ruled from September 15, 1762 to January 9, 1771. PM Koizumi aside, however, the political classes as a whole are delighted to shelve the reform issue. Which helps explain the PM’s potential successor, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe’s rather florid language. From the political perspective perhaps the autumn skies are clear, but taking a slightly longer view the birth of Prince Hisahito at best only preserves the male line for a generation. And as the youngest of the children of Emperor Akihito’s two sons, with three elder princesses, will Japanese public opinion accept such obvious discrimination based on gender? Indeed, how will Prince Hisahito feel about the Imperial Household Law when he grows up? He will no doubt be as contemporary as his fellow Japanese subjects. But, for the immediate future, the succession crisis is likely to be put aside and if that takes some pressure of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako some good will have transpired. (Royalty Magazine Vol. 20/06)

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