The Economist. London: Jan 29, 2005.Vol.374, Iss. 8411; pg. 60
IN JAPAN, social progress often comes in baby steps. So it is fitting that a prominent decision about women's equality will involve Japan's most famous baby: three-year-old Princess Aiko. On January 25th, a ten-member government-appointed panel met for the first time to discuss whether women should be made eligible for the imperial throne. If the law is revised, Princess Aiko might one day take a very big step indeed.
Most Japanese like the idea. In a recent poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, a big daily, 79% said that women should be allowed to take the throne. Less than 4% were opposed. In 1975, only 32% were in favour. Perhaps conservatism and sexism are fading faster in Japan than people thought. But equality is not the only factor. Popular support for female succession also reflects the way the government has sold the issue, as a step to bolster the stability of the Chrysanthemum Throne: something dear to conservatives' hearts as well. The imperial family will not run out of male heirs for a while yet. Crown Prince Naruhito is only 44, and his brother, Prince Akishino, is five years younger. But because no males have been born since them, and existing law strips women of their royal status when they marry commoners, the imperial family could face a succession crisis one day under current law. That is why so much attention has focused on Princess Aiko, the only child of the crown prince and princess.
Many Japanese feel sympathy for Crown Princess Masako, a 41-year-old, well-educated former diplomat who has had a hard time coping with imperial life. For years after her marriage to the crown prince, single-minded officials of the Imperial Household Agency pressured her to produce a male heir. The birth of her daughter in December 2001 captivated the nation. But that happy announcement has been followed by tough times for the crown princess. Last summer, the Imperial Household Agency acknowledged that she was being treated for anxiety and depression. A few months earlier, her husband had shocked the public by blaming unnamed people for trying "to deny her career and personality". Some Japanese assume that her unhappiness stems from ongoing pressure by imperial-household officials to bear a son. Making Princess Aiko eligible for the throne would remove any doubts over succession, and relieve any pressure on her mother.
The prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has other reasons for wanting to move quickly. He has already been one of Japan's longest-serving post-war prime ministers, and the economy has turned around impressively since he took office in April 2001. But his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) imposes term limits, and his stint as its leader is due to end in September 2006. Many of the projects Mr Koizumi has pursued to cement his legacy will take much longer to reach fruition. Privatising the postal service, his pet project, will take more than a decade. Japan is pressing the United Nations for a permanent seat on the Security Council, but that is no overnight task. And although the LDP will propose some constitutional revisions later this year--perhaps tweaking Japan's pacifist restrictions in the process--enacting any changes will take much longer. That leaves a territorial dispute with Russia and the "stability" of the throne as Mr Koizumi's best bets for achieving something popular.
The panel will have much to discuss. It could, for example, choose to make men and women equal in the imperial line, thus giving priority to Princess Aiko over her uncle, Prince Akishino. Or it could opt for a system like Britain's, in which a woman can take the throne, but only if the monarch has no male issue. Hopefully, the panel's deliberations will spark some debate over the broader role of women in Japan. May Princess Aiko grow up in a country with more women as accomplished as her mother.