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Japan: A woman for Emperor?

No male heir born in 40 years sparks a debate about bringing "gender equality" to the Japanese monarchy. What is the role of the Japanese monarchy? Would a female monarch be a step forward?

Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi is an unlikely advocate of women’s rights. But earlier this year the well-coiffed leader was keen to promote gender equality. Not for all women, mind you, or even a few, but rather a four-year-old girl known as Her Imperial Highness Princess Aiko. He supported an effort to revise the Imperial House Law that would allow her to “ascend” to the throne one day. Why this concern for the plight of royal women? Well, the fact that no male heir has been born for the past 40 years might just have something to do with it. Unless something is done, or a prince is born, the monarchy faces the prospect of withering away.

Koizumi responded to the succession crisis by setting up an advisory council in late 2004, which issued a report recommending that women and their descendants be granted the right of succession. The proposal had strong public backing and seemed uncontroversial, this being the 21st century. So it came as a surprise when right-wingers mobilized to oppose the reform. Considering that the reform was intended to save—not abolish—the monarchy, it seems strange that these “traditionalists” (to use a charitable term) are dead-set against it. But there is a certain logic that underlies their stance.

Some commentators have explained the fierce opposition to the reform as stemming from sexism, pure and simple. In a February 23 Asia Times article, J. Sean Curtis argued that the opposition to the reform, which he views as “a significant leap forward” for gender equality in Japan, “exposes the deep-seated anti-female bias at the heart of the Japanese establishment.” Certainly, those opposed to the reform are sexists. But in this case their motivation is not merely to keep women in their place, but to keep all Japanese workers in their place.

Above all, they treasure the monarchy as a valuable means of fostering nationalism. Their concern, often explicitly stated, is that casually throwing away one long-held dogma could threaten the entire ideology surrounding the “imperial household.” Suddenly admitting the triviality of male lineage, after harping on its importance for centuries, could raise other doubts, including the question of why a monarchy is even necessary. Monarchy enthusiasts found it hard enough to accept the idea that the emperor is not a deity, which Emperor Hirohito admitted in 1946. And some still haven’t let go of this idea, as reflected in Prime Minister Mori’s comment, in 2000, that “Japan is a divine nation, with the Emperor at its center.” Today, they are unwilling to make further sacrifices.

In particular, the traditionalists cling to the notion of an unbroken “eternal” line of succession on the paternal side stretching back 2,666 years. Starting on February 11, 660 B.C., to be exact. This “bloodline” is said to be the longest in the world and the very essence of Japan. Perhaps psychology can account for the odd fixation on length, but there is also a social explanation. The idea of continuity is comforting to the rulers of Japan. They have a vital interest in convincing workers that class-divisions will always exist—as symbolized by a distinction between royals and commoners. At the same time, almost conversely, the monarchy conveys the idea that all Japanese are part of a family headed by the emperor that transcends class. Of course, the “facts” mobilized to support this comforting and useful notion are not so convincing.

First of all, outside of Nazi scientific circles, anyone who harps on the importance of blood in relation to genealogy, not to mention its purity, is regarded as a fool. Even if “blood” is a synonym here for DNA, considering that every child is the product of a man’s sperm and woman’s egg, it is hard to see why the male side of this equation should be fixated on.

Turning from biology to history, the claims of the traditionalists hold up no better. The figure of 2,666 years is based on the first recorded histories of Japan, Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). Both texts are a mixture of myth and historical fact, written in the early eighth century at the behest of the imperial family to boost its prestige. Given this patronage, it is not surprising that the authors were prone to exaggeration. Not only is the length of the imperial line stretched out considerably, but the origin of the Japanese monarchy is actually traced back to a sun goddess named Amaterasu. Those who rely on facts, rather than historical fiction, generally think that the first “emperor” (tenno) appeared some time around 400 AD. Unfortunately, carrying out such archeological research in Japan is impeded at every step by the Imperial Household Agency, which restricts access to tombs and artifacts.

The first emperors, whenever they existed, were hardly social types unique to Japan. Similar despots emerged throughout the world, as an early manifestation of class divisions. (In fact, there is speculation that the imperial family is of Korean origin.) And if older is better, as jingoists in Japan insist, they would have to bow down to lands where these religious/political leaders scratched and crawled their way to the top many centuries earlier. Granted, as our jingoists would surely point out, the Japanese monarchy stretches all the way to the present. But this is only because the emperor was grafted on to subsequent modes of production, whereas despots in other lands often had the good grace to exit the historical stage after playing their roles. The name tenno may remain—although even it was only coined in the eighth century—but the person bearing this title has been shaped by the times, tossed back and forth by the tides of history no less than the “commoners.”

Traditionalists speak of the imperial family as the core of the Japanese nation, but apart from the early centuries of real power, emperors have functioned primarily as figureheads. During the feudal Edo Period, for example, it was the Tokugawa clan, based in Edo (Tokyo) that ruled over a network of fiefdoms, while the Emperor rusticated in Kyoto. Some have argued that the 1868 “Meiji Restoration” (capitalist revolution) marked the emperor’s return to real power, but despite the emperor taking on new ideological significance under capitalism, his role has remained primarily symbolic; first as a unifying symbol wielded by the revolution’s leaders to forge a modern nation-state, and later as a bulwark against calls for greater democracy and as a tool to mobilize workers to fight imperialist wars. Even if we accept the argument that some emperors, most notably Emperor Hirohito, played an active political role, this does not deny that the ruling class as a whole utilized the emperor as a useful ideological tool.

Since the light of such historical facts erodes their cherished myths, the traditionalists’ campaign against the reform has relied heavily on scare tactics. The rank-and-file have been told that a female emperor would be more susceptible to manipulation by politicians or that “Japanese culture” is incompatible with a man playing second-fiddle to his empress wife. And their Japanese blood really boiled when former trade minister Takeo Hiranamu depicted a nightmare scenario, in which Princess Aiko becomes the reigning empress, “gets involved with a blue-eyed foreigner while studying abroad and marries him” so that their child becomes the emperor. Here we have Mein Kampf in reverse, with an “Aryan” peeing in the sacred gene pool.

Most of their energy was focused on attacking the reform, but the traditionalists did manage to offer a few solutions as well. One was to swell the ranks of royal welfare recipients by reviving the status of royals who were stripped of their titles after the war. The emperor’s cousin, Prince Tomohito, offered a more cost-effective solution. Quite unburdened by new-fangled notions of equality, he suggested the reintroduction of concubines, whose wombs could service the needs of crown prince and nation alike.

But before other solutions could be offered, the debate suddenly came to a halt in February. Whether they realized it or not, the opponents of reform had an ace up their sleeve in the emperor’s mustachioed second son, Prince Akashino. While the debate was raging, he set aside his research on catfish (I’m not joking!), to attend to a vital matter with his wife, Princess Kiko. The royal couple, already parents of two teenage daughters, announced that a third child is due in September. This revelation immediately silenced talk of reform—although the birth of another girl might rekindle interest in gender equality.

Compared to the insincere reformists, the traditionalists are refreshingly principled. They have little use for equality in general, not to mention gender equality, and do not conceal this fact. This is reflected in other efforts they are making to mold society, all supported by Koizumi, such as: revising the history textbooks so children “feel good” about Japan, forcing schools to display the national flag and students and teachers to sing the national anthem, encouraging politicians to visit the war-glorifying Yasukuni Shrine, or revising the Constitution to cut out the bits about democracy and human rights. Their message is simple: “Obey!” Although it remains to be seen whether this prewar template of nationalism, centered on the emperor, will be effective.

We have looked at unprincipled “reformists” and block-headed traditionalists, but what are we to make of those who genuinely saw the reform as a step, or even a leap, forward for gender equality? Can an institution based upon inequality become a beacon for equality between men and women?

Just posing this question highlights its absurdity. But more importantly, this view of an empress as a positive role model implies that achieving gender equality is primarily a matter of changing people’s way of thinking. This ignores the relation between the social system (capitalism) and the way people think and act. The continued existence of discrimination against women throughout the world suggests that there is such a relation. There is not space here to fully explain this, but in part gender discrimination stems from the general interest of capitalists to divide the working class, and the tendency of employers to hire a man over a woman if childbirth or raising a child might interfere with work.

To be fair, capitalism has contributed to gender equality by bringing large numbers of women into the workforce, to be exploited along with their male coworkers. And states are willing to introduce legislation to protect women’s rights when gender discrimination itself negatively affects the smooth functioning of the profit-making system. In Japan, for example, there is alarm over the extremely low birth rate. Unless the state opens the doors to foreign workers, which it is reluctant to do, it may have no choice but to improve working conditions so more women can continue working after childbirth. If this does occur liberals will be ready to supply the flowery rhetoric, but the fact remains that the state would be acting in the common interests of capitalists, not because their “way of thinking” suddenly changed. It is also worth remembering that the state giveth, and if conditions change, the state will gladly taketh away (or at least curtail) any right — whether it be health-care and pension benefits, shorter working hours, or women’s rights.

And even if capitalism could be reformed to eliminate gender discrimination forever, we would still be left with the inequities of this system. Capitalist equality is limited to the relation between buyers and sellers of commodities. Workers, as the sellers of labor-power, are also granted this right (although few commodity owners are swindled so regularly). This marketplace equality, however, conceals inequality within production, where workers have no choice but to work under, and enrich, the owners of the means of production (capitalists). Under this system, gender equality is nothing more equality between men and women as wage slaves. And even this remains a unfulfilled dream.

Socialists are serious about achieving equality—between men and women, and between all human beings—and recognize that true equality can only be achieved when humanity bids farewell to capitalism.