A 'Tradition' Unworthy of Modern Japan

Article excerpt

In the maelstrom that is the universalisation of everything, it's amazing to realise how different some people still are. Especially if they're Japanese. I remember feeling uneasy about Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation, about its implicit mockery of all things Japanese. Patronising, I thought, within spitting distance of racism. Yes, yes I know the plot was about the loneliness of two lonely people meeting up in a strange environment, but just how strange is Japan?

Hasn't it, since the war, gone roaring ahead in electronic wizardry, economic miracles and the life expectancy of its population who knew the benefits of a sushi diet while we were still breaking free from rice pudding? The longest life expectancy on the planet is that of Japanese women who can hope to live to 84.5 years. So it's odd that they just don't want one of them on the throne, the chrysanthemum throne that is. What's even odder is that apparently the entire population has been in despair for the past 40 years at the failure of the existing dynasty to produce a male heir.

The first terrible thing about this is what it does to the lives of the women involved. When the current heir Crown Prince Naruhito, married his wife Princess Masako in 1993, their marriage was under regular, one might say monthly, scrutiny to discover whether she was pregnant, and if so with a son. Princess Masako was a well-educated woman who'd been a former diplomat and suddenly found her function in life defined as a breeding mare for male heirs. No wonder the poor woman got depressed. I remember some years ago, the Crown Prince going public with a request that the media and the society as a whole should lay off because the speculation was getting them down. He put it tactfully, of course. Eventually she bore a daughter, Princess Aiko, but that didn't fit the bill. The national agonising went on.

Now their prayers - Shinto prayers, presumably - because that is the national religion, have been answered. The wife of the second in line, Princess Kiko, gave birth to a son this week. The new child has two older siblings, both, alas, girls, so supposedly ancient tribal tradition goes on. The new prince is now the third in line to succeed. According to reports, the entire Japanese population paused amid their giddy lives of computers and chopsticks to heave a shared sigh of relief that such an old tradition had been restored.

Except, what is odd about the whole matter, is it isn't some ancient tradition at all. Japan claims it has the oldest continuous monarchy in the world, dating from a mythic Emperor Jimmu around 660BC. The current emperor, Akihito, is the 125th direct descendant, who have in earlier times included as many as eight female emperors. …