Why Won't Japan Have an Empress?

When American news sources report on the question of the succession of occupants of the mostly-symbolic Japanese throne they tend to frame the issue in feminist terms.   In American news sources, the story is told that the royal family is running out of potential male successors to the title of Emperor, so Japan is supposedly struggling uncomfortably with the barely thinkable possibility of appointing its first female titular head, its first Empress.   That impression was left on readers most recently by the interview of a royal distant cousin published in the New York Times of October 20 2007.

It must come as quite a surprise when Japanese readers stumble upon these stories in the American media.  Female Emperor?  As most Japanese school children know, there have already been eight Female Emperors of Japan, the latest of whom was Gosakuramachi, who ruled from 1762 to 1770.   There's even a separate word for it.  A male Emperor is called Tenno (the word Mikado stopped being used centuries ago, despite what Gilbert and Sullivan would have you believe).   The wife of an Emperor is Kougou.  A female Emperor is Jotei. In English, the word Empress doesn't make a semantic distinction between the wife of an Emperor and a woman who herself rules as Emperor/Empress.

What then is this business about Japan's reluctance to appoint an Empress?

For the first one or two thousand years of its reign, there never were specific, codified rules of succession in the royal family.   Somehow one Emperor managed to follow another. In the late nineteenth century, when Japan was "modernizing" and trying to imitate the then-more-advanced European countries, it banned Female Emperors.   After World War II, the US, through the offices of General MacArthur, snipped off many branches of the royal family tree and prohibited Female Emperors.  In the back of MacArthur's mind this plan was a way of eventually eliminating royalty as a Japanese institution.

Here's where contemporary personalities enter the picture.  The Crown Prince Naruhito is married to Crown Princess Masako.   Princess Masako is sometimes depicted as a Japanese Princess Di, a born commoner who is stuck in an unhappy royal marriage.  Tales of Masako's dilemma appear frequently and consume a great deal of ink and bandwidth in Japanese media.

Princess Masako's primary job is to produce a male heir to the throne.  In this job she has failed so far.   She and her husband have only one child in over ten years of marriage, a girl, Princess Aiko, born in 2001.  In the last several years many stories have been published about the pressure on Masako to produce a male heir, her unhappiness, and the likelihood of psychological problems as a result of her misfortune.   But unlike Princess Di, who seemed to become more popular over time, Princess Masako's stock has been falling steadily in the Japanese public's eyes.

The marriage started under a cloud.  It seems that Masako's grandfather had been Chairman of the company involved in one of Japan's deadliest pollution scandals, known as Minamata.  Grandfather became CEO well after the disaster happened, so blame does not fall on him for the worst events.  His problem is that he was extremely stingy doling out compensation to the sufferers.   One of his most notorious comments can be loosely translated into English as "let them eat polluted fish."

Of course people were willing to forgive Masako for the sins of her grandfather.

It is also known that Masako's father, Hisashi Owada, opposed the marriage and took a heap of convincing before he assented.   Owada, born near Niigata, Japan, is a distinguished diplomat who served in some extremely high-level posts for Japan throughout the world.  He has also been a professor at several top-tier universities throughout the world, including Harvard.   To add to this impressive list, he is a judge on the International Court of Justice and serves as senior advisor to the president of the World Bank.

The reasons for Owada's disapproval are not known to the outside world.  One can only guess.   Perhaps Owada was trying to warn his daughter about the crimped life within the walls of Akasaka, the royal residence.

Most people probably harbor the belief that being a member of a royal family, any royal family, entitles one to a life of unremitting luxury.   All one need do is play polo, go to ribbon-cutting ceremonies and eat bonbons all day.  Perhaps that is an accurate depiction of life in the castles of Fredonia, but it doesn't suit Japan.   An interviewer asked Masako a few years ago what the royal family does all day.  Her answer was that it is the job of the royal family to pray all day.   Indeed, the schedule of Shinto prayers is quite rigorous.  Prayers fill the day.  On many occasions during the year members of the royal family - especially the Emperor - must stay up all night to propitiate the gods for the sake of the soul of the Japanese people.

Over time - over time when no male heir was produced - more and more stories were published about Masako's unhappiness as a royal.   She was seen less and less in public.  Many excuses were made for her absences.  Her mental state was said to be becoming increasingly dire.

The year 2006 saw two events that caused a change in public perceptions.  Masako traveled to Holland supposedly for medical treatment.   While in Holland she was asked to attend some diplomatic events.  She declined, claiming poor health.  Nevertheless, she found time and energy to go to some private meetings.  People became suspicious.  What kind of spoiled Princess living on the public dole do we have on our hands here, they seemed to ask.

A book, Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne; The Tragic True Story of Japan's Crown Princess, by Ben Hills, was published in Australia by Random House.   The book depicted Masako as a brilliant woman who had been aiming for a distinguished career as a diplomat, like her father.  But she took a tragic wrong turn in her life when she married a love-struck prince and committed her life to unending superstitious ritual, pressure to produce a male child and other, often colorfully embellished personal indignities.   It must be noted that this sensational book barely satisfied thrill seeking royals-watchers.  Despite his best efforts, the author could not uncover a single sex scandal anywhere in the royal household.   Finally, the book met with stiff condemnation by officials in the palace.  Plans to publish outside Australia were put on hold.  

Whatever the merits of Hills's book, its appearance precipitated a storm of negative stories about Masako.

Her school career went under the microscope.  It was discovered that she never graduated the University of Tokyo.   She was among a select few in a certain Master's Degree program at Oxford University.  But she never finished her degree at that school either.   She completed a program at Harvard.  But it is said she had the assistance of several economists to write her final paper.   There were even some nasty stories about her pre-college years.  It is said that she arranged to trap a tour conductor on a school trip into his room and more or less threw away the key for a few hours.   It is also said that she seemed to enjoy the biology class autopsy of a bird a little too much - although how this was determined is sketchy.

Questions about Masako's ancestry did not escape the storm of negative stories.  Although Masako's father was born in Japan and served Japan without scandal in several major posts, doubts were raised.   Several generations back, Masako's father's family might have been from Korea.  For most purposes in Japan, a background of Korean ancestors a few generations back doesn't mean a lot.   But we're dealing with the royal family here. 

The Japanese take great pride that their royal family stretches back unbroken for two thousand years.  The exact names and the exact number of Emperors and Empresses is known, 125 to be specific.  Don't look too closely at this record though.  Maybe the number of years is actually closer to fourteen or fifteen hundred than two thousand, but who's counting?   And quite a few Emperors were born to concubines, not Emperor's wives.  Nevertheless Japanese royal longevity is nothing to be dismissed casually.   Which is why the possibility of Koreans mixing in the royal line is disturbing to some Japanese.  European royalty is well known to mix.   Katherine the Great of Russia was born in Germany.  Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria of England, was from Germany.  And so on.   Such things are simply not done in Japan.

As the clock ticked and thirty-nine, then forty years went by without the birth of a male child in the royal family, things became dicier.   Masako was taking a lot of hits.  The entire royal family and its rules of succession were also put on the firing line.  Finally some important politicians tried to ride to the rescue.

If the problem was that only a male could become Emperor, why not change the law?  Prime Minister Koizumi came forward with a proposed remedy.   He floated a bill to change the law - to outsiders who didn't know Japanese history, to get with the times - to permit a Female Emperor.  MacArthur was no longer around to complain and contemporary America was much more likely to endorse this change than stick to MacArthur's old rule.

The bill never had to come to a vote.  A royal male baby was born in September 2006 to the wife of the second son of the reigning Emperor.   Whew.  Good enough.  Japan dodged a bullet.  The succession was saved.   And Crown Princess Masako was blessedly left off the hook.

For most intents and purposes this is the end of this episode.  With its new male Emperor in his crib the Japanese royal household could hang around for forty or fifty or more years.   The question of Female Emperors doesn't have to come up again for a long time.  How people view the world, the importance of making women precisely equal with men in all things, and even the desire to continue the Emperorship at all might mean different things to future generation than they do to ours.   Instead of Masako being judged the loser of this saga, it appears that the loser this time is the hopes of feminists to reform the succession rules. But it could be different next time.

Update: We received the following email:

October 28, 2007

Princess Masako

letter to the editor
I came across an article on Princess Masako by Sidney Raphael on your website, dated October 28 2007. Normally I don't comment on this sort of mish-mash of inaccuracies, speculation and unsourced gossip which you find all too often on the lunatic fringes of the blogosphere, but since he mentions my book I feel that I should write to correct his mistakes as they relate to me. I did not, as your author states, go looking for sex scandals in Masako's life - what I did was investigate the allegations of impropriety which had been published elsewhere to see whether there was any substance to them. There was not, as he would know if he had read the book. As for his statement that plans to publish the book outside Australia have been "put on hold" the most cursory investigation would have shown that the book has already been published in Australia, the USA, Taiwan and Japan. It is currently an international best-seller, and there are contracts for it to be published in a further six countries. May I commend Princess Masako-Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne (Random House and Penguin) to those of your readers who wish to learn the facts of this royal tragedy, rather than Mr Raphael's amateurish, ill-researched and far-fetched waffle.

Yours truly,

Ben Hills


When American news sources report on the question of the succession of occupants of the mostly-symbolic Japanese throne they tend to frame the issue in feminist terms.   In American news sources, the story is told that the royal family is running out of potential male successors to the title of Emperor, so Japan is supposedly struggling uncomfortably with the barely thinkable possibility of appointing its first female titular head, its first Empress.   That impression was left on readers most recently by the interview of a royal distant cousin published in the New York Times of October 20 2007.

It must come as quite a surprise when Japanese readers stumble upon these stories in the American media.  Female Emperor?  As most Japanese school children know, there have already been eight Female Emperors of Japan, the latest of whom was Gosakuramachi, who ruled from 1762 to 1770.   There's even a separate word for it.  A male Emperor is called Tenno (the word Mikado stopped being used centuries ago, despite what Gilbert and Sullivan would have you believe).   The wife of an Emperor is Kougou.  A female Emperor is Jotei. In English, the word Empress doesn't make a semantic distinction between the wife of an Emperor and a woman who herself rules as Emperor/Empress.

What then is this business about Japan's reluctance to appoint an Empress?

For the first one or two thousand years of its reign, there never were specific, codified rules of succession in the royal family.   Somehow one Emperor managed to follow another. In the late nineteenth century, when Japan was "modernizing" and trying to imitate the then-more-advanced European countries, it banned Female Emperors.   After World War II, the US, through the offices of General MacArthur, snipped off many branches of the royal family tree and prohibited Female Emperors.  In the back of MacArthur's mind this plan was a way of eventually eliminating royalty as a Japanese institution.

Here's where contemporary personalities enter the picture.  The Crown Prince Naruhito is married to Crown Princess Masako.   Princess Masako is sometimes depicted as a Japanese Princess Di, a born commoner who is stuck in an unhappy royal marriage.  Tales of Masako's dilemma appear frequently and consume a great deal of ink and bandwidth in Japanese media.

Princess Masako's primary job is to produce a male heir to the throne.  In this job she has failed so far.   She and her husband have only one child in over ten years of marriage, a girl, Princess Aiko, born in 2001.  In the last several years many stories have been published about the pressure on Masako to produce a male heir, her unhappiness, and the likelihood of psychological problems as a result of her misfortune.   But unlike Princess Di, who seemed to become more popular over time, Princess Masako's stock has been falling steadily in the Japanese public's eyes.

The marriage started under a cloud.  It seems that Masako's grandfather had been Chairman of the company involved in one of Japan's deadliest pollution scandals, known as Minamata.  Grandfather became CEO well after the disaster happened, so blame does not fall on him for the worst events.  His problem is that he was extremely stingy doling out compensation to the sufferers.   One of his most notorious comments can be loosely translated into English as "let them eat polluted fish."

Of course people were willing to forgive Masako for the sins of her grandfather.

It is also known that Masako's father, Hisashi Owada, opposed the marriage and took a heap of convincing before he assented.   Owada, born near Niigata, Japan, is a distinguished diplomat who served in some extremely high-level posts for Japan throughout the world.  He has also been a professor at several top-tier universities throughout the world, including Harvard.   To add to this impressive list, he is a judge on the International Court of Justice and serves as senior advisor to the president of the World Bank.

The reasons for Owada's disapproval are not known to the outside world.  One can only guess.   Perhaps Owada was trying to warn his daughter about the crimped life within the walls of Akasaka, the royal residence.

Most people probably harbor the belief that being a member of a royal family, any royal family, entitles one to a life of unremitting luxury.   All one need do is play polo, go to ribbon-cutting ceremonies and eat bonbons all day.  Perhaps that is an accurate depiction of life in the castles of Fredonia, but it doesn't suit Japan.   An interviewer asked Masako a few years ago what the royal family does all day.  Her answer was that it is the job of the royal family to pray all day.   Indeed, the schedule of Shinto prayers is quite rigorous.  Prayers fill the day.  On many occasions during the year members of the royal family - especially the Emperor - must stay up all night to propitiate the gods for the sake of the soul of the Japanese people.

Over time - over time when no male heir was produced - more and more stories were published about Masako's unhappiness as a royal.   She was seen less and less in public.  Many excuses were made for her absences.  Her mental state was said to be becoming increasingly dire.

The year 2006 saw two events that caused a change in public perceptions.  Masako traveled to Holland supposedly for medical treatment.   While in Holland she was asked to attend some diplomatic events.  She declined, claiming poor health.  Nevertheless, she found time and energy to go to some private meetings.  People became suspicious.  What kind of spoiled Princess living on the public dole do we have on our hands here, they seemed to ask.

A book, Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne; The Tragic True Story of Japan's Crown Princess, by Ben Hills, was published in Australia by Random House.   The book depicted Masako as a brilliant woman who had been aiming for a distinguished career as a diplomat, like her father.  But she took a tragic wrong turn in her life when she married a love-struck prince and committed her life to unending superstitious ritual, pressure to produce a male child and other, often colorfully embellished personal indignities.   It must be noted that this sensational book barely satisfied thrill seeking royals-watchers.  Despite his best efforts, the author could not uncover a single sex scandal anywhere in the royal household.   Finally, the book met with stiff condemnation by officials in the palace.  Plans to publish outside Australia were put on hold.  

Whatever the merits of Hills's book, its appearance precipitated a storm of negative stories about Masako.

Her school career went under the microscope.  It was discovered that she never graduated the University of Tokyo.   She was among a select few in a certain Master's Degree program at Oxford University.  But she never finished her degree at that school either.   She completed a program at Harvard.  But it is said she had the assistance of several economists to write her final paper.   There were even some nasty stories about her pre-college years.  It is said that she arranged to trap a tour conductor on a school trip into his room and more or less threw away the key for a few hours.   It is also said that she seemed to enjoy the biology class autopsy of a bird a little too much - although how this was determined is sketchy.

Questions about Masako's ancestry did not escape the storm of negative stories.  Although Masako's father was born in Japan and served Japan without scandal in several major posts, doubts were raised.   Several generations back, Masako's father's family might have been from Korea.  For most purposes in Japan, a background of Korean ancestors a few generations back doesn't mean a lot.   But we're dealing with the royal family here. 

The Japanese take great pride that their royal family stretches back unbroken for two thousand years.  The exact names and the exact number of Emperors and Empresses is known, 125 to be specific.  Don't look too closely at this record though.  Maybe the number of years is actually closer to fourteen or fifteen hundred than two thousand, but who's counting?   And quite a few Emperors were born to concubines, not Emperor's wives.  Nevertheless Japanese royal longevity is nothing to be dismissed casually.   Which is why the possibility of Koreans mixing in the royal line is disturbing to some Japanese.  European royalty is well known to mix.   Katherine the Great of Russia was born in Germany.  Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria of England, was from Germany.  And so on.   Such things are simply not done in Japan.

As the clock ticked and thirty-nine, then forty years went by without the birth of a male child in the royal family, things became dicier.   Masako was taking a lot of hits.  The entire royal family and its rules of succession were also put on the firing line.  Finally some important politicians tried to ride to the rescue.

If the problem was that only a male could become Emperor, why not change the law?  Prime Minister Koizumi came forward with a proposed remedy.   He floated a bill to change the law - to outsiders who didn't know Japanese history, to get with the times - to permit a Female Emperor.  MacArthur was no longer around to complain and contemporary America was much more likely to endorse this change than stick to MacArthur's old rule.

The bill never had to come to a vote.  A royal male baby was born in September 2006 to the wife of the second son of the reigning Emperor.   Whew.  Good enough.  Japan dodged a bullet.  The succession was saved.   And Crown Princess Masako was blessedly left off the hook.

For most intents and purposes this is the end of this episode.  With its new male Emperor in his crib the Japanese royal household could hang around for forty or fifty or more years.   The question of Female Emperors doesn't have to come up again for a long time.  How people view the world, the importance of making women precisely equal with men in all things, and even the desire to continue the Emperorship at all might mean different things to future generation than they do to ours.   Instead of Masako being judged the loser of this saga, it appears that the loser this time is the hopes of feminists to reform the succession rules. But it could be different next time.

Update: We received the following email:

October 28, 2007

Princess Masako

letter to the editor
I came across an article on Princess Masako by Sidney Raphael on your website, dated October 28 2007. Normally I don't comment on this sort of mish-mash of inaccuracies, speculation and unsourced gossip which you find all too often on the lunatic fringes of the blogosphere, but since he mentions my book I feel that I should write to correct his mistakes as they relate to me. I did not, as your author states, go looking for sex scandals in Masako's life - what I did was investigate the allegations of impropriety which had been published elsewhere to see whether there was any substance to them. There was not, as he would know if he had read the book. As for his statement that plans to publish the book outside Australia have been "put on hold" the most cursory investigation would have shown that the book has already been published in Australia, the USA, Taiwan and Japan. It is currently an international best-seller, and there are contracts for it to be published in a further six countries. May I commend Princess Masako-Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne (Random House and Penguin) to those of your readers who wish to learn the facts of this royal tragedy, rather than Mr Raphael's amateurish, ill-researched and far-fetched waffle.

Yours truly,

Ben Hills