BREAKING NEWS : Allen County Councilman Joel Benz plans to accept TRAA executive director position Full Story

Centuries ago, women ruled Japan. What changed?

Life as an Empress in Japan's Imperial Family isn't easy. CNN's Will Ripley takes a look at the tough experience of Japan's Empress Michiko.

Posted: Apr 28, 2019 2:40 PM
Updated: Apr 28, 2019 2:40 PM

The long-term survival of the world's oldest monarchy will depend on a schoolboy when Japan's current emperor abdicates next week, reviving calls for an end to laws that bar women from the throne.

Twelve-year-old Hisahito, son of Crown Prince Akishino, will become second-in-line to the Chrysanthemum Throne when Akishino's elder brother, Naruhito, inherits the crown from their father on May 1.

Akishino will be first in line but is already 53.

"The whole future of the Imperial family depends on one little boy -- that he will remain healthy and be willing to marry and have children with his wife," says Ben-Ami Shillony, a professor of Japanese at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Conservative and patriarchal Japan excludes women -- who make up 13 of the 18 members of the royal family -- from taking the throne. But this wasn't always the case.

Empresses ruled Japan at various times over several centuries until they were barred in 1889.

Female rulers

Archeological studies of tombs show that female chieftains were prevalent in western Japan in the fourth century, according to Chizuko T. Allen, a historian at the University of Michigan.

These women, who were buried alongside iron weapons and tools, were competent political, military and religious leaders, says Allen. Tombs for male chieftains only began appearing in the fifth century, she writes in a paper published in the Japan Forum journal.

While the tradition of female rulers and chieftains was commonplace in ancient Japan, Shillony says history books tend to emphasize the feats of male emperors.

"Even if the female empress achieved many things, they are still not regarded as prominently as the male emperors," he says.

Japan's first recorded empress, Suiko, ruled from 592 for around 35 years until her death and is credited with forming the country's first constitution. Powerful Empress Koken ruled twice: at first, from 749 to 758 and then as Shotoku from 764 to 770, working to spread Buddhism beyond the capital.

Empress Genmei (707 to 715) even put her daughter, Gensho, on the throne after her own abdication, thinking she would make a better monarch than Crown Prince Obito, according to Hitomi Tonomura, a University of Michigan historian.

Some historians maintain the empresses were merely puppet rulers who abdicated once a suitable male heir came of age. Others say they shaped Japan's history more than their male counterparts.

"From today's perspective, it's interesting to think of how the contribution of Japan's past reigning empresses to history has become so diminished," says University of Michigan historian, Hitomi Tonomura.

"By totally ignoring these women or interpreting their roles as mere 'fillers' between (Imperial) men, Japanese society offers no historical imagination for what women can be and do."

Modern Japan

As Japan modernized during the Meiji era of 1868 to 1912, the leaders of the time changed the role of the emperor, reinstating him as military commander-in-chief. -

Because a woman could no longer command the military, Meiji leaders believed it would make no sense to have reigning female empresses, says Shillony. A male-only succession was established.

The desire to emulate the West was also strong.

Meiji leaders took inspiration from the Prussian constitution -- which forbade women from ascending the throne -- and in 1889 barred women from being enthroned, says Shillony. They did not wish to replicate the British model where Queen Victoria reigned.

Instead, the period saw a masculinization of the emperor and of Japanese society in general as the Meiji regime emphasized the perceived superiority of men over women.

"In the Meiji constitution, the notion of 'ie' (house) was inscribed. That subordinated wives and household members under one patriarch. This wasn't the case before," says Tonomura, the historian.

Tonomura explains that during the Meiji era, modern Japan formally became a patriarchal society. Some Meiji laws on birthrights and marriages, such as married couples using the same surname (generally the man's), are still applicable to this day.

US influence

The US occupation following Japan's defeat in WWII brought changes to society as American values were slowly introduced.

Under the post-war constitution, the emperor's position was changed from ruler to figurehead and the Imperial family was banned from engaging in politics. But while women were given the right to vote in 1945, no efforts were made to reinstate their right to the throne.

"The US didn't want to alienate the Japanese establishment by diminishing the emperor's status," says Shillony. "People thought the question of gender in the Imperial family should be dealt with by future governments."

Such discussions finally came to a head in 2004 under then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose cabinet formed a panel of politicians and academics to consider the issue. At the time, the Imperial family had not produced a male heir since 1965, while Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako had a daughter named Aiko in 2001.

Under current law, only male heirs with emperors on their father's side can succeed to the throne. The panel's report suggested a legal change either to allow a female monarch or to reinstate members of the old aristocracy who were stripped of their royal status after WWII.

But the proposition provoked strong opposition from Japan's ultra-conservatives, says Shillony. The plans were shelved once Hisahito was born to Princess Kiko, the wife of Crown Prince Akishino in 2006.

Unreformed Chrysanthemum Throne

Amid changing global attitudes on gender equality, nearly two-thirds of Japanese favor a law revision to allow women to ascend the throne, according to a 2017 poll by Mainichi Shimbun.

The debate on whether to let women who marry commoners remain within the imperial family has also resurfaced.

But female leadership remains elusive overall in Japan despite moves by the government to empower working women under a scheme dubbed "womenomics."

Just 10% of politicians in Japan's House of Representatives are female, according to data released earlier this year, one of the worst gender imbalances in legislatures worldwide.

Unconscious gender bias and male entitlement are still pervasive in Japan, says Tonomura.

And despite the legacy of powerful female rulers, the prospect of a modern-day equivalent is remote without significant moves to redress gender inequality.

"Some women think having a female emperor might be good as a kind of role model," says Tonomura. "But getting a female monarch is wishful thinking at this time."

The only likely change to the monarchy in the near future is one allowing princesses to stay in the Imperial family even if they marry a commoner. That could potentially, says Shillony, pave the way for a female succession in the future.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 941120

Reported Deaths: 15315
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1282511983
Lake633041097
Allen53609758
Hamilton43827447
St. Joseph41906590
Elkhart33545490
Vanderburgh30383448
Tippecanoe26820249
Johnson23609417
Hendricks22250341
Porter21737346
Clark17409229
Madison17366384
Vigo16108281
Monroe14466191
LaPorte14311239
Delaware14070221
Howard13865272
Kosciusko11418135
Hancock10841165
Warrick10674177
Bartholomew10542168
Floyd10430205
Wayne9959226
Grant9130204
Morgan8865160
Boone8389111
Dubois7710123
Dearborn762289
Henry7608130
Noble7413101
Marshall7362128
Cass7176117
Lawrence6957153
Shelby6584111
Jackson656785
Gibson6156107
Harrison603786
Huntington600195
Montgomery5805105
DeKalb574291
Knox5494104
Miami542488
Putnam536768
Clinton533665
Whitley524953
Steuben497268
Wabash483592
Jasper479160
Jefferson470092
Ripley454277
Adams444068
Daviess4169108
Scott405865
White391857
Clay390857
Greene388392
Decatur385296
Wells384983
Fayette374278
Posey359941
Jennings353156
Washington332047
LaGrange321375
Spencer317835
Fountain316555
Randolph312888
Sullivan307449
Owen283863
Starke280064
Fulton277553
Orange275859
Jay254837
Perry251652
Carroll243729
Franklin239338
Rush234130
Vermillion233250
Parke219820
Tipton209655
Pike207639
Blackford168334
Pulaski163551
Crawford146018
Newton144345
Benton142516
Brown135346
Martin128217
Switzerland125810
Warren114616
Union96911
Ohio79711
Unassigned0479

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1365800

Reported Deaths: 21596
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1522221560
Cuyahoga1344852327
Hamilton976051320
Montgomery670271141
Summit562091047
Lucas50900863
Butler47417655
Stark41580976
Lorain31567532
Warren30001331
Mahoning26963639
Clermont25628292
Lake24585417
Delaware22313145
Licking20487241
Fairfield20420221
Greene20309272
Trumbull19866509
Medina19796287
Clark17879328
Richland16314234
Portage16130229
Wood15681208
Allen14115256
Miami13786253
Muskingum12641152
Wayne11946238
Columbiana11708241
Tuscarawas10953269
Marion10725148
Pickaway10465129
Scioto10324127
Erie9747171
Ross9436176
Lawrence8755125
Hancock8458141
Ashtabula8317185
Geauga8173156
Belmont8140187
Jefferson7527172
Huron7423128
Union731851
Washington7183120
Athens697165
Sandusky6848134
Darke6756136
Knox6671122
Seneca6358137
Ashland5948113
Auglaize587188
Shelby5727101
Brown564171
Mercer557890
Defiance5483101
Madison543371
Crawford5425114
Highland541581
Fulton530683
Clinton525580
Logan512182
Preble4994110
Putnam4833106
Guernsey470364
Williams459282
Perry449852
Champaign445964
Ottawa436884
Jackson425362
Pike388843
Morrow383851
Fayette375853
Coshocton374766
Adams360675
Hardin359069
Gallia347356
Holmes3259108
Henry324668
Van Wert314670
Hocking301769
Wyandot280658
Carroll262652
Paulding242243
Meigs213942
Monroe189749
Noble169340
Morgan165829
Harrison157940
Vinton138118
Unassigned05
Fort Wayne
Mostly Cloudy
50° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 50°
Angola
Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 55° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 54°
Huntington
Partly Cloudy
50° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 50°
Decatur
Mostly Cloudy
50° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 50°
Van Wert
Partly Cloudy
53° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 53°
Sunshine and warmer air return to round out the work week, but the warm-up is brief.
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events