Feature: Bringing up baby
"This results from the growing sense
of gender equality in Japan, as the political influence of the female
population undoubtedly [is] greater than it has ever been." says
Japanese history expert Hane.
The birth of Princess Aiko on December 1 put a smile on the faces of
Japan's downcast citizens, but will the newest member of the imperial
family ultimately impact political and cultural spheres? Matt Wilce reports.
As news of modern Japan's most-anticipated imperial birth spread through
the nation on the afternoon of December 1, a wave of joy washed over downcast
economic news to brighten the streets, television screens and front pages
of Tokyo. "Bright news at last," announced an editorial by Mainichi
Shimbun. Emerging before the nation seven days later, 3.1kg Princess Aiko
showed little comprehension of the significance of her birth. But in a
nation known more for its slumping stock market than its imperial past,
the sleeping baby represented a renewed hope not only for the future of
the Chrysanthemum Throne but the populace as a whole.
Already the subject of much speculation before her birth, the imperial
baby has been lauded as a stimulant of Japan's decrepit birthrate and
the equally feeble economy—some have even suggested that Aiko's birth
will result in a billion-dollar boom in consumer spending. "In an
instant, the symbolic value of the monarchy—sometimes doubted or forgotten—becomes
clear again. For a brief, shining moment, people will set aside anxieties
about terrorism, war and recession to contemplate simpler, happier things,"
said The Japan Times in its December 2 editorial pages.
While the news failed to lift the Nikkei stock average, bookstores and
department stores rushed to set up commemorative displays and sales campaigns.
The excitement also translated into a roaring trade in train tickets from
the station that shares the baby's name and pregnant dolls with mail-in
coupons that can be exchanged for a baby, along with a device to deflate
From the 3,500 people who lined the streets to cheer the newest addition
to the imperial family to the flags that sprung up across town, it quickly
became clear that Aiko's birth was among the best news the country has
had in a century. And despite the succession debate that her birth has
renewed, it's impossible to underestimate the value of good news in the
In the name of love
Written with the characters "love child," the name bestowed
on the newborn by her grandfather, Emperor Akihito, is not without a touch
of irony. Crown Prince Naruhito, now 41, courted his future bride for
a considerable time before she agreed to forgo her burgeoning diplomatic
career to become a princess. Eight years later, their first child is a
product of their perseverance in the face of criticism and the indiscriminate
hands of fate.
Masako Owada, now 37 and daughter of a career diplomat who served as Japan's
permanent representative to the United Nations, grew up in Moscow and
New York before entering Harvard University to study economics. The multilingual
Masako—fluent in English, French, German and Japanese—graduated magna
cum laude and went on to follow her father into the foreign ministry.
Universally hailed as a vibrant and highly respected career woman, Masako
was seen as an injection of modern sensibility into the staid imperial
"I recall when Princess Masako married Prince Naruhito, many Japanese
women believed that she would champion women's rights, but she virtually
disappeared from the public scene," notes Mikiso Hane, author of
Eastern Phoenix: The History of Japan Since World War II, who attributes
Masako's reticence to the conservative influence of the Imperial Household
Naruhito and Masako quickly left behind the paparazzi of their early courtship
and the pomp and glitz of their royal wedding, and eight years into their
marriage they appeared dogged by bad luck, depression and boredom, as
the pressure to produce a child, let alone a male heir, mounted. In December
1999, Princess Masako's miscarriage threw the imperial household into
When Masako's second pregnancy was finally announced May 15 last year,
the widespread jubilation was accompanied by the kind of rumors not seen
in print, even in the West. The baby's birth has again renewed hopes among
Japanese women and liberals alike. Moreover, being a girl likely means
Aiko will be loved in a way a male heir would not. While Naruhito, his
brother and sister were raised by their parents, Emperor Akihito was taken
away at the age of three and spent most of his childhood in his own separate
household with wet nurses, valets, chamberlains and tutors, paying his
parents weekend visits.
But the emperor maintained an unconventional streak, marrying Michiko
Shoda, the first commoner to marry into the imperial family, after they
met on the tennis court. Class valedictorian at Sacred Heart Women's University
and co-author of several poetry collections, Michiko broke with tradition
to raise her three children together with her husband.
Aiko's name has also struck a chord with the public, bucking the trend
against names ending in the diminutive suffix Ðko and potentially
setting off a new naming fad. When Michiko married the emperor in 1959,
a slew of baby girls were named after her. The next year the birth of
Crown Prince Naruhito, whose royal name is Hironomiya, filled the top
ten list of boys' names beginning with Hiro-. Products bearing the new
princess' name are also engulfed in a sudden boom. Aiko brand shochu,
produced on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima, is flying off the shelves.
In Sendai the sleepy little station of Ayashi has gone from selling two
platform tickets a day to moving 6,500 in a single day. The reason? Its
name is written with the same characters as Aiko.
End of the line?
For all the excitement and celebration that has come with Aiko's arrival,
a potentially contentious debate has also dominated the headlines. Had
a male been born, he would have been second in line for the throne. But
present law does not allow a woman to ascend the throne.
Until recently there was no historical precedent ruling out female rule.
Japan's first leader, Princess Himiko, oversaw the spread of culture during
the Yamato period (AD 300-550), and in total ten empresses have sat on
the Chrysanthemum Throne. The most recent was Gosakuramachi, who ruled
from 1762-1770 before abdicating in favor of her nephew. There is no doubt
that the male line takes precedence when it comes to accession, and both
Gosakuramachi and her predecessor Meisho (1629-43) abdicated so that male
relatives reaching maturity could take the crown.
This patrilineal policy dates back to the Meiji Constitution and the Imperial
House Law of 1889 that states, "The empire of Japan shall be reigned
over and governed by a line of emperors unbroken for ages eternal."
The present Imperial House Law of 1947, compiled as an adjunct to the
hastily cobbled together postwar Constitution, also precludes an empress
and the line of succession remains unchanged by Aiko's birth—Crown Prince
Naruhito followed by his brother Prince Akishino and Prince Hitachi.
Hiroshi Takahashi, co-author of Koi Keisho ("The Imperial Succession")
told Japan Echo the minister in charge of constitutional issues at the
time "believed the Japanese people had a natural understanding that
the imperial line had come down through male succession and that the few
empresses who had reigned were exceptions, meant to bridge gaps in the
male lineage and step down when their part was completed."
Things are therefore not looking good for the future of the Chrysanthemum
Throne, as both Naruhito and Akishino have only daughters, Hitachi is
childless, and there has not been a male birth in the family since 1965.
In the past it was possible for an illegitimate son born to a concubine
to be named heir—both the Meiji and Taisho emperors were conceived this
way. But the present law precludes illegitimate children assuming the
throne, cutting off an often-used escape clause.
One week after Aiko's birth, Japanese weekly Shukan Bunshu bravely ran
a story titled "The Three Taboos," referring to subjects the
Imperial Household Agency wishes to ignore or quash—something they are
very successful at. In the story one insider source was quoted as saying,
"We are not considering the possibility of having an empress."
The end of the line may be in sight, though. A revision of the rules regarding
succession would not necessarily be opposed. Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi told reporters when the pregnancy was first announced that, "I
personally think an empress would be fine, but I want the LDP to study
fully because this is a big issue." But he and many other political
figures see the debate as premature and are holding out for a male heir
from the imperial couple.
Public sentiment, however, appears to favor an empress. A Mainichi poll
conducted the week after Aiko's birth showed 86 percent of respondents
said it was time to amend the law governing succession. Calls for amendment
were highest among men, at 89 percent, compared to 83 percent of women.
"This results from the growing sense of gender equality in Japan,
as the political influence of the female population undoubtedly [is] greater
than it has ever been," says Japanese history expert Hane. "I'm
sure the younger generation would favor the revision but it depends on
how liberal-minded the majority of the Diet members are."
On top of being new parents, the Crown Prince and Princess have the future
of the 2,700 year-old Chrysanthemum Throne weighing heavy on their shoulders.
But baby Aiko is certainly producing a royal rush, reviving the fading
popularity of her parents and uniting a nation starved of good news. The
country and crown have received yet another boost from a charismatic female.
The current Emperor's private English tutor, Elizabeth Vining, used to
call him Jimmy.
Empress Michiko's father owned the Nisshin Flour Milling Company, the
largest manufacturer of cup noodles in the world.
Emperor Hirohito was buried with the Mickey Mouse watch he bought at
Disneyland on a visit to California.
A lifelong Disney fan Hiorhito named his horse Snow White—the Imperial
Household office reported the name as White Snow to preserve his image.
The Imperial Family always ride in maroon cars.
There have been ten Empresses since the Imperial Family assumed power.
Crown Prince Naruhito was the first royal to be educated overseas. He
attended Oxford University.
Emperor Akihito represented Japan at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth
Emperor Hirohito's mourning ceremony cost $74 million.