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

On the 29th of April 2019 the old era of Hesei ended with the abdication of Emperor Akihito and the name of the incoming era, Reiwa, 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 twenty-year long period is referred to as “The Lost Twenty Years” (失われた二十 ushinawareta nijūnen) and still today Japan is in the grips of its effects. Furthermore, 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. Therefore, the end of the old era might have been blissfully received by the Japanese that understandably hope better times await them. 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. For instance, 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” and consistent with the conservative stance of the current government. 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 going extinct. At the foundation of this predicament is the male-only succession rule, introduced in 1899 by the Meiji Constitution, which has regulated the Imperial succession system ever since. The law stipulates that only a male heir from a designated branch of the Imperial Family may inherit and assume 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 continued giving birth only to females. However, the newly crowned Emperor Naruhito was not supposed to ascend to the throne. The twelve-year-old Prince Hisahito, the sole male heir, was next in line but was too young to perform the symbolic and ceremonial functions such a title entails. If Prince Hisahito does not produce a son, in the future, the dynasty will end.

 

Why wasn’t the law changed to give the title to a woman? 


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


There have been eight 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 to the throne. A survey conducted by Kyodo News showed that nearly 80% of the population said they would support allowing females to ascend to 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” does not seem likely to happen by the set time, given that the male-dominated society as a whole would need to undergo a shift in work styles influenced by 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 the nation with the biggest gender inequalities in the developed world.


Giulia Iuppa

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