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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Japan's female emperors
Crown Princess Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito
If the royal couple have a girl calls for change will increase
Japan analyst David Powers looks back at the role of women in the imperial family, as politicians consider a change in the rules of succession.

There was a time when there was nothing unusual in the emperor of Japan being a woman - but it was a long time ago.

More than 1,300 years ago, in fact.

Not only that, they were allowed to retire or abdicate - something the current occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne cannot do. His is literally a job for life.

Princess Nori, the emperor's daughter
If Princess Nori marries she will become a commoner
Two of Japan's female emperors, Kogyoku and Koken, not only retired, they both came back for a second reign. Incidentally, in Japan the title "empress" refers only to the wife of the reigning monarch, never to the monarch herself.

After going into retirement in 758, just six years later Koken had her successor deposed, and took over again.

But it seems her headstrong ways were too much for the rest of the court. Nearly 1,000 years passed before women were allowed back on the throne again - and then only in a figurehead capacity.

In fact, for most of the Imperial Household's long history, the emperor has rarely been little more than a figurehead, the real power usually lying either with an influential family of courtiers or with a military leader, the shogun.

This separation of power was made particularly clear in the 17th century, when the first of the Tokugawa shoguns set up his administrative centre in what is now Tokyo, while the emperor continued living in Kyoto, several hundred miles to the west.

The Tokugawa family ran the country, while the emperor lived in relative poverty and isolation.

In effect, the country had two hereditary dynasties with the Tokugawas controlling the day-to-day affairs of the country, while the Imperial Household fulfilled a spiritual role as high priests of the Shinto religion.

Mythical forces

It all changed in the mid-19th century when Japan woke up to the fact that it had missed out on the industrial revolution, and that Europe and the US had overtaken it.

The Tokugawas were toppled, the emperor moved into their magnificent castle, and renamed the city Tokyo - which simply means "eastern capital".

Hirohito
Emperor Hirohito had to renounce his divinity
Again, the emperor was used as a symbol to enthuse the nation to embark on one of the most ambitious and rapid periods of modernisation the world has ever seen.

In less than 30 years, Japan was transformed from a feudal society into a modern industrial state.

In their enthusiasm to convince people both at home and abroad that Japan deserved a special place in the world, the country's elite delved into ancient myths to transform the Imperial Household into a completely unique force.

The 16-year-old Emperor Meiji, who was on the throne at the time, proved a willing and capable figure to rally the country round.

No longer a vague spiritual presence in the background, he was elevated to the status of a living god. He was the father of the nation, and the people were his children.

The law surrounding the Imperial Household was changed. Women were excluded from the right to inherit the throne; and in the emperor's new role as a deity, it was naturally unthinkable that he should ever abdicate.

World War defeat

Although this new focus on the emperor succeeded in placing Japan alongside the world's other great powers within the space of a few decades, it also paved the way for the excesses of the Japanese military in the 1930s.

Extremists within the army used the emperor's name to justify anything and everything they did.

Just how much Meiji's grandson, Hirohito, was a passive pawn or willing participant in this process remains the subject of fierce controversy.

After Japan's crushing defeat in World War II, the Allies were deeply divided about whether to put the emperor on trial as a war criminal.

The supreme commander of the occupation, General Douglas McArthur, decided that Hirohito was the glue needed to keep Japan together after the war; and virtually overnight, the imperial role was transformed yet again.

Hirohito renounced his divinity, put on an ordinary suit and trilby, and started travelling round the country encouraging people to rebuild the nation. Not the best of conversationalists, he became known as "Mr Ah, so" - his usual response to everything that was said to him.

The post-war constitution stripped the emperor of all power and took away most of the imperial family's possessions.

Even the size of the family was strictly limited. For instance, Emperor Akihito's daughter, Princess Nori, will become a commoner if ever she decides to marry.

Although most Japanese still say they support the monarchy, it is no longer a focus of their daily life.

But if one of Emperor Akihito's granddaughters ever becomes emperor in her own right, she will inherit a rich and turbulent history.

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See also:

09 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan considers female succession
16 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japanese princess 'may be pregnant'
16 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan's Dowager Empress dies
12 Nov 99 | Asia-Pacific
Japan celebrates imperial anniversary
31 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Japanese princess suffers miscarriage
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