The End of an Era and Women on The Throne: Is Japanese Women Empowerment still a distant reality?

On 29th May 2019 the name of the new Era was announced by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe himself explained what the name entails: an era where “culture is born and nourished” and where “people’s hearts are drawn beautifully together”.

The previous Era “achieving peace” lasted for 30 years (1989-2019) but wasn’t really characterized by peaceful times. In the early 1990s, the price bubble burst and ignited a long period of economic stagnation. This 20-year long period is referred to as The Lost Twenty Years (失われた二十, ushinawareta nijūnen) and today Japan is still in the grips of its effects.

Moreover, Japan was stricken by natural disasters such as the Tōhoku Earthquake of 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, which triggered a tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe and ended up killing thousands of people.

The end of the old era might have been blissfully received by the Japanese that understandably hope better times await them. But despite the beautiful message conveyed by Reiwa, in the last few years, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe hinted at Japan’s geopolitical aims on more than one occasion. He said goals can be easily assumed in his interview with the Sankei newspaper, in 2014: “[…] by 2020 […] I want Japan to have recovered its prestige and be recognized respectfully for its momentous contributions to world peace and stability in the region.

"Japan's higher prestige will restore the balance of power in the Asian region.” As the “balance of power” will be restored once Japan’s prestige will be recognized, some scholars have deemed such statements as too “imperialistic” and “revisionist” but considering the conservative stance of the current government, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

The traditionalist position of the Japanese government has also emerged by the way it decided to handle the abdication of Emperor Akihito. In fact, what has globally come to light with the recent change of era is that the Japanese Imperial Family, the most ancient Imperial dynasty left in the whole world, is basically going extinct. In 1899 the Meiji Constitution introduced a male-only succession rule which has been regulating the Imperial succession system so far.

The law says that only a man can ever be on the throne and only a precise family branch can inherit the throne. In addition, the Imperial House law of 1947 prevented women from taking the throne and impose them to sever all ties with the family after marriage. Debates on this issue first arose in the 1920s as the Empress kept on giving birth only to females and this seems to be one of the origins of today’s succession problem. And as we can see from the genealogy of the Chrysanthemum Dynasty, published by The Imperial Household Agency, the female offspring abounds compared to the only three male descendants, one of whom has just become the Emperor of Japan.

However, the newly crowned Emperor Naruhito was not supposed to ascend the throne. The twelve-year-old Prince Hisahito, the last male heir, was next in line but too young to perform the symbolic and ceremonial function such a title entails. If Prince Hisahito will not produce a son in the future the dynasty is sure going to end.

So, why wasn’t the law changed to give the title to a woman?

The abdication of Emperor Akihito, the first time in history an Emperor voluntarily abdicates after 200 years, as well as Princess Mako’s engagement and her leaving the royal family for good, fomented the debate about letting a woman ascend the throne to not lose more members from the Imperial Family. In fact, it’s not as if a female Emperor never existed in the history of Japan.

There have been 8 Empresses in total and the last one ruled 250 years ago.

Furthermore, the Japanese population is not at all against allowing a female heir to ascend the throne. A survey conducted by Kyodo News showed that nearly 80% of the population said they would support allowing females to ascend the Imperial throne and allow their offspring to success the position. Nevertheless, Abe’s conservative government expressed caution about changing the male line of succession and thus, a new law was issued to especially allow Emperor Akihito to abdicate and make his son the next Emperor. And yet, according to The Japan’s Times one of the hopes for the new era is about “seeing women take the next step up the ladder” considering the low rate of women taking leadership roles in both the government and the private sector. But the womenomics policies under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe that envisaged “getting women into 30% of management positions by 2020” doesn’t seem likely to happen by the set time since the male-dominated society as a whole should probably undergo a change in work styles built on traditional values. Although efforts for women empowerment are being boosted, it is a fact that the option of giving the throne to a female descendant was discarded in a nation with the biggest gender inequalities in the developed world.

Giulia Iuppa