Gender, politics and the imperial family


Yesterday, I was asked for my thoughts on gender and the Japanese imperial family by The New York Times. Sometimes, your interview doesn’t make the final version of the story; however, this time, some of my thoughts were included in Motoko Rich’s final piece. In this post, I’d like to expand on some of the questions she raised. Thanks to Ms. Rich for a thought-provoking piece!


The question of gender and imperial succession in Japan has become a pointed one, with the majority of the public supporting a change in succession laws to allow women to take the throne and remain in the imperial family after marriage.

Historically, Japan has had a number of female empresses. While unusual, it was not expressly forbidden until the Meiji era. The most recent female monarch ruled Japan in the Edo period. Empress Go-Sakuramachi (1740–1813) reigned from 1762 to 1771. This makes the claims that women cannot rule because of "tradition", or because they would undermine the legitimacy of the imperial family, suspect at best. Furthermore, let's also consider all the other royal families worldwide with women heads, such as Elizabeth II of England. It hasn't seemed to affect their legitimacy. It's clear the rhetoric of tradition here is in service of other agendas.


In addition to being out of step with public opinion, the strict rules about women in the imperial family have resulted in a shrinking institution with only one male heir in the coming generation. In the case of the future empress Masako, the policy of male heirs only created severe pressures to give birth to a son, which is well documented. What is more overlooked is the fact that this policy also places great stress on the only male heir of the next generation—indeed, just this week it was announced that knives were found in the prince’s desk. It’s difficult to imagine he will become less of a target as he ages. In light of the pressure its shrinking ranks place on all members of the imperial family, this abdication and transfer of the throne should serve as a chance to re-evaluate the role of women in the monarchy and in Japanese society as a whole. 

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Kathryn M. TANAKA

Kathryn M. TANAKA

Cultural and Historical Studies

Associate Professor

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