Monday, October 23, 2006


The Emperor's New Clothes

Earlier this year, while in Japan, my mother and I were riding the shinkansen when she stiffened over something she'd read on the news crawl that runs over the car doorway.

"Princess Kiko is going to have a baby," she said.

My mother and I often think alike and at the same pace, and a moment later we declared to each other that the baby would be a boy, that the palace officials must have been involved in the baby's conception, and that Princess Masako would now be sidelined and suffer even greater pressure for her "failure" to produce an heir. (If you need a refresher on this stuff, there is plenty out there for you to read.)

I posted something along these lines over at Japundit. Some people agreed. Others said that you can't tell the sex of a baby when it is that young (you can tell after a matter of weeks). Others told me that the baby would either be a girl or a boy and that I should chill. My favorite comment is:

Marie Mockett, I wish you’d stop posting. You are very negative and judgemental. I don’t know what have have against the Imperial family, and I am sure that you wouldn’t want people speaking that way about you. How sure are you about how the Crown Prince and Princess are feeling about Princess Kiko’s pregnancy? If anyone is so smug it is you. Are you American by any chance?

Well, here we are months later, I'm still American, Princess Masako conveniently went out of the country for the birth of the baby (a boy, of course) and the news tells us that Princess Kiko's profile has been raised considerably. (Yay Kiko! You had a boy! Well done!) There are numerous sides to the debate, with some insisting that it doesn't really matter whether Japan has an emperor or empress; the system is antiquated and no one pays any attention to it anyway. And to some degree, I'm sure that this is true. On the other hand, I can't help but wonder what it means for Japan that such extreme measures may have been conducted to assure a male heir to the throne.

Like a lot of people who straddle two worlds and two cultures, I'm always battling the misconceptions that people have of Japan. When I took my partner to Japan for the first time, someone actually asked us upon our return: "So. Did you get him one of them geisha girls in the bath-house?"

Ditto for the number of people who express great distress over the condition of women in Japan, and their relief that foot-binding has finally been outlawed. (That was China, I explain). I know plenty of wonderfully smart and talented Japanese women, both in the US and in Japan, who think on their own, have their own opinions and are their own agents in life. And yet, when I ask my mother if she would ever return to Japan, she very clearly says: "No. I am used to too much freedom here."

What is the freedom she is talking about? Japan has socialized medical care, some form of which our own country could stand to implement. Its schools, while the subject of great handwringing in Japan, are impressive. The average life-span of the Japanese woman is still a record holder. But then there is this observation from one ironic female reporter:

It’s true that the ladies of Japan haven’t been doing too badly these days. We’re doing markedly better career-wise—you can bet that all those high-end brand stores in Ginza are not being built for men. We can even choose to stay single forever and leave Japan childless instead of opting to marry manga-reading worker bees. And after years of being randomly fondled by strangers, we have won the right to group all different kinds of women into a body odor-free train decorated with hot-pink flowers, the Japanese metro’s nod to grrrl power.
Women are protected in Japan in ways we can only dream about in the US. Some women, like my own cousin, can now live in female only condos, and elect to be single, as 54 percent of women in their 20s are doing (2003) compared to 24 percent of the same age group in 1980. Like all crazed Japanophiles I could go on and on about the things that Japan does so well and, in my opinion, far better than my own country.

But then there is this nagging, messy freedom issue and Marie Iida's little dig at the establishment in the essay above. What's the deal?

Every now and then an article appears in the Wall Street Journal or Business Week about how the glass ceiling is firmly in place in Japan and how there are very few (if any) female corporate heads. The ratio of female to male executive heads in the new government is 1.7%. Knowing these statistics, did we really expect that the government would change the constitution to allow for an empress? Maybe the European monarchies have allowed for queens over kings, but then Japan isn't Europe. Tokyo is not Japan.

The real Japan is often outside of Tokyo, where families who outwardly live a very modern life still follow stiff patriarchal rules, particularly where matters of lineage and family inheritance are concerned. So, why was there any debate at all about changing the constitution? The public supposedly supported an empress, so why didn't it go through?

A smart commenter at Japundit wrote in the following:

the point is that the “victory” (changing the constitution) wouldn’t really mean much and would give people a false sense of security. A lot of foreign advocates of reforming the law really were just doing it to “get one over the oyaji-san (old people)”. They weren’t really interested in women’s rights.

And women know, deep down, that though they enjoy tremendous security, the social changes haven't happened to really permit them to be something other than mothers in marriage -- unless they choose to be alone. Rick, once again, says something pertinent:

There you have it: five well-educated, ambitious women have managed to have only five children among them, and they are from a generation that graduated from college almost thirty years ago. It’s a personal perspective, but it ties in closely with what I glean in conversations with younger women. And the snowball is rolling downhill. Japanese women just aren’t going for the old business of boorish, neglectful husbands, tyrannical mothers’ in law, duty to procreate and raise the future of the nation, etc., etc. Until Japanese society finds a way to change those realities for its young women, the birth rate will continue to plummet.

What the old bulls in the political china closet, so used to always having it their way, don’t realize is that as long as the nation and society are held within their narrow, Neanderthal view of things, the situation will only get worse. Masako and her daughter represented a good opportunity for all, but the macho guys would have none of it, and the young women with so much at stake were all out shopping or playing with their keitai denwa while the issue came around, then went up in a puff of smoke.

I'll go on record now and say that I'm incredibly disappointed at the way this whole charade turned out. As someone who has spent significant time in Japan over a number of years, I shouldn't be surprised. But, as the original commenter at the top of this post noted, I'm American. As much as I love to go to Japan and find its traditions intact, I also have a desire to want and enjoy change--and to engage in the noisy and tiresome debates that surrounded these twin impulses in my own country.

As a woman who once suffered the indignity of pressure to bear a son (and within three years of getting married the first time) I was also hoping this would turn out differently.

I realize there are cultural differences but pressuring a woman to have any child, much less a specific sex, is really horrible in these modern times.
Well, I agree. And that's the thing. My concept of modernity is that this kind of pressure wouldn't exist. Maybe that makes me American, but, duh, I'm American!
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