Melanie Stern is section editor of Families in Business.
Prince Hisahito's birth into the Imperial Family has answered Japan's prayer for a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. But it also killed political will to change male primogeniture law, laments Melanie Stern – for at least another generation
For reformists, it was a moment of intense bittersweet feeling: the birth of Prince Hisahito on September 6 to Princess Kiko and Prince Akishino, while joyous in terms of a family welcoming a new baby (the prince has two sisters, aged 12 and 15) has slammed the door on one of Japan's most emotive debates for change, just as it had gathered momentum.
For the Japanese royal family, probably the world's oldest and laden with all the intricate, archaic political mores one would expect, Hisahito's arrival was quite literally heaven-sent. Under a 1947 Imperial Household Law – enshrined just as the Western world was waking up to girl power, helped along by the necessity for women to work while their husbands fought in the second world war – Japan's Imperial Household officially barred female ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne. This move, rather ironically for a country whose laws have mutated constantly to defend its traditions against foreign invaders, backed up a law dating back to old Prussian influence, which itself sharpened the age-old assumption that men would always hold such positions.
After the 19th century Meiji Revolution, when Japan saw wholesale societal change that led to the restoration of Imperial rule from the ruling military Tokugawa shogunate, several branches of the royal family were downgraded to commoner status, and it was decided that only male descendents from the Meiji branch of the 2,000 year old clan could inherit. The idea was to keep the bloodline pure by ensuring only males directly descended from an emperor would succeed the throne. Today, of the 23 Imperial Family members left after those deductions, the succession list is just seven names long. His Imperial Highness, little Hisahito, the first male heir to be born to the family for 40 years, is third in line to inherit after his dad who will become Emperor unless his older brother Crown Prince Naruhito does.
The whole affair polarises two of the most difficult issues family businesses have faced for generations: succession, and the question of women in charge. Whether stemming from pure offensiveness to the fragile male ego, fear of change, concerns around opening up control and ownership to those who marry in, or the age-old idea that feminine wiles don't make for strong leadership in a male-dominated world, effecting change in this area has been nothing short of pulling teeth for hundreds of years. Rather than changing mindsets, the only thing that has really opened the door for women in business has been proof that they can do it, not least when the male owners of family businesses were sent to war – and often never returned – and their wives, sisters, mothers and nieces stepped in as the crisis managers of their day. Many of those businesses survive today and women are slowly infiltrating boardrooms everywhere. Except for Japanese boardrooms, that is. You don't need many fingers to count the number of female executives in the country. How can educated, intelligent Japanese women have any hope of leading businesses in a country where the lack of a male to lead a decrepit institution like the royal family led one prince to suggest his older brother take a concubine in efforts to garner a boy child?
What of Hisahito? Not only does the poor mite have a lifetime ahead of unrelenting royal duty, obedience and tradition as the newest prisoner of the gilded cage, but his birth is a source of resentment for modern-minded Japanese. It gave Japan's government and ruling classes the perfect reason to kill talks about ending the antiquated male-only rule just as the wind was changing. Outgoing prime minister Junichiro Koizumi had pledged in his annual keynote speech this January to submit a bill opening ascendancy to women, easing pressure on the family and ensuring its continuity as rulers. Public opinion had long been in support of such a move, particularly as so many had read how much distress the issue caused to the most senior royal princess. Crown Prince Naruhito's wife Princess Masako's diagnosis with severe depression (or "adjustment disorder", as the Royal Household eloquently re-branded it) and subsequent disappearance from public life in 2004 seemed to be triggered by constant pressure on her to produce a son and heir. After a miscarriage in 2001 she gave birth to a daughter, princess Aiko, which was met with palpable disappointment. Her suffering was surely exacerbated by the rigidity of Japanese royal life; the first 'commoner' to marry into the family, Masako comes from a wealthy business family and was already a successful career diplomat before marrying. This chafed badly with her new and all-consuming royal duties.
It seems that 21st century Japan has not learned from the lessons of instability that old-headed philosophies can bring, preferring to avoid change. Surprisingy, Japan's history books contain no less than seven tenno, or ruling empresses, who stepped in to save the family business dynasty. Empress Suiko took the throne as 33rd emperor of Japan in 1771 to avert a power vacuum that emerged when her predecessor was assassinated and the country's opposing clans were set to go to war over whose leader would take over. Empress Kogyoku took the throne as 35th emperor in 642 when her brother died, and again in 655 at the request of her son who became Emperor Tenji after her. Tenji's daughter, Empress Jito, was interim empress after her husband died. Note that these women were all crisis managers, brought in to rule because there were no suitable men available.
But there is some history of Japan educating its women well. Female education became a serious issue after the Sengoku period of the mid-15th century, during which Japan was almost constantly at war for 200 years. Brought to its knees by the haemorrhaging of thousands of menfolk, Japan was forced to recognise the potential of women as contributors to a stable economy. In 2006, women are among the world's best educated. Japan's education system, in a society that so prizes academic excellence it drives many of its youth to suicide, has some of the best universities and most focused students anywhere in the world. But gender role expectations and societal traditions die hard: a recent study showed that in contrast to the existence of so many well-educated Japanese women, there was a serious dearth of men of equal scholastic merit with which to pair up with. Their would-be husbands were choosing to trade way down in terms of spousal education status. (Women readers may make of this what they will: another of the author's studies in this field is titled Men Prefer Subordinate Women or Long Term Relationships.) Last year there were just over 1.1 million women in Japanese universities, compared to 1.7 million men in a population of around 128 million, according to Japan's statistics bureau. That said, the statistics bureau says Japanese women still tend to choose typical female subjects to study in higher education, in the social sciences, teaching and home-making courses. The emergence of the kaikyo mama – the housewife who will do anything to get her children into the best schools – has been blamed by some social thinkers on their frustration with the glass ceiling; and seen as their attempt to live their stunted ambitions through their children.
With a new prime minister elected (the conservative Shinzo Abe) and the problem of finding a boy heir solved for at least the next generation, Koizumi's pledge to recommend the house of representatives allow females to inherit the throne will be conveniently forgotten. The next time the issue arises, it will be for the ruling government of the day to deal with; to plan so far ahead by opening legislation now would force some extremely awkward conversations among Japan's top lieutenants, and that's nothing that can't be put off. For the Japanese, it seems, gender roles are as clear-cut today as they were in ancient times. Girls may be called upon as crisis managers when it suits: but it's banzai – 10,000 years, or long life – for male succession.