The Rising East


Sunday, December 16, 2001

A little princess captures
hearts and hopes for Japan’s
continued royal legacy

Japan has gone ga-ga over the birth of Princess Aiko, whose name means "child of love."

Travellers coming from Tokyo report crowds at the Imperial Palace, banner headlines, respectful TV coverage, people grabbing fliers given out in the Ginza district downtown, and endless speculation about changing the law governing imperial succession to permit a woman to become emperor.

Princess Aiko: Japan's newest royal family member sleeps in the arms of her mother.

Said one visitor to Japan, "Enthusiasm is the only way to describe the reaction. Everybody liked the name because it is so contemporary and so familiar to them." The new princess, born Dec. 1 and named on Dec. 7, has already been given an affectionate nickname, Ai-chan.

There's more at work here, however, than a happy event to take Japanese minds off their economic troubles, political reforms, threats of terror, defense posture, or even gender equity. The birth of the princess has re-opened the question as to whether the imperial institution will survive.

At the moment, there are no male heirs and it may be that the imperial line will continue only if a woman ascends to the throne. Polls suggest that a majority of the Japanese would favor a law mandating that the eldest child rather than the eldest son of the imperial couple be the successor.

In the 2,000 years of Japanese history, the emperor has come to symbolize the nation, not unlike the way the American flag has taken on quasi-religious tones. The emperor is the father -- or mother -- of the national family, the chief priest of the Shinto religion, the one who provides ritual legitimacy to those who govern. The emperor gives the Japanese a sense of identity.

Says Ben-Ami Shillony, professor of Japanese history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, "It is the oldest reigning dynasty in the world, the only one the Japanese are aware of having had, and the only one that does not have a (family) name. It has survived aristocratic authoritarianism, feudal disintegration, internal warfare, shogunal despotism, modern Westernization, and, most surprisingly, total military defeat."

Although the imperial institution has been dominated by men, it has long had a feminine mystique about it. The mythical founder of Japan was Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the Sun Goddess. Between the years 593 and 779, six women were emperors. They were not called "empress," denoting the wife of an emperor, but emperors in their own right. The Japanese title, "tenno," applied to both men and women.

Only two more women, however, reigned later, Emperor Meisho from 1629 to 1643 and Emperor Go-Sakuramachi from 1762 to 1770. Even so, the male emperor was expected to cultivate the arts, poetry and calligraphy, considered to be the feminine side of Japanese culture. The shogun was the chief warrior, actual ruler and patron of masculine virtues -- once he had been made legitimate by the emperor. (For an excellent discussion, see Dr. Shillony's paper at

"More than father figures," Shillony writes, "the emperors remained mother figures in both the Shinto tradition of the great goddess and the Confucian tradition of the submissive mother, leaving the masculine function of government to others." Princess Aiko's formal title, Toshi-no-miya, by which she will be addressed, reflects her religious and moral obligations, meaning "shrine of respect."

In modern Japan, the emperor's position has clearly evolved. The Emperor Meiji, restored to prestige to suit the purposes of those who sought to make Japan a world power, was portrayed as distinctly masculine. The Emperor Taisho was mentally unbalanced and was gently replaced by the Emperor Showa, first as regent, then as Emperor Hirohito. (Meiji, Taisho and Showa are posthumous titles.)

The real turn came when the present emperor, Akihito, married a commoner, Michiko Shoda, the daughter of a successful businessman rather than an aristocrat. Crown Prince Naruhito followed suit, marrying Masako Owada, the daughter of a prominent diplomat. Thus, both of Aiko's grandmothers and her mother are commoners, which some Japanese say has enriched the imperial bloodline.

In Princess Aiko, two surging currents of Japanese life converge. With her blood as a commoner, she represents the gradual deepening of Japan's commitment to democracy. Through her paternal legacy, she reflects the ancient traditions of her homeland and culture. In this child is the promise that they will be gracefully melded.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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