Science - September 14, 2006

‘It is an invented tradition’

The birth of a baby boy to the imperial family of Japan after more than forty years was worldwide news. It meant the postponement of a long-running debate about changing Japanese law to allow women to sit on the throne. ‘A pity,’ says PhD researcher Kei Otsuki.

Otsuki was hardly aware of the international fuss. The secretaries at the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University congratulated her before she had even heard the news herself. But while Otsuki is happy about the birth – ‘It is always nice when a child is born’ – she feels a bit disappointed. ‘The government was finally talking about making changes to the imperial system.’

Otsuki came to the Netherlands almost two years ago and is now finishing her thesis about social policies concerning farmers in the Amazon. She finds it difficult to explain why she doesn’t want to go back to her home country Japan. ‘I think it’s because it differs too much from the rest of the world.’ The ecstatic reaction of most Japanese about the long-awaited birth is a good example. ‘I am not really very fond of the royal family. Besides being a waste of our taxes, I think it is a living heritage that Japan is making into a museum.’

According to a Japanese law passed in 1947, only boys are allowed to ascend the throne. Most people are in favour of retaining this law because they believe it is based on tradition. ‘But it is an invented tradition,’ says Otsuki. Before the law was introduced there had been six empresses on the throne at various times in Japanese history.

Besides being a doubtful tradition, it also has some negative effects, thinks Otsuki. ‘The pressure of giving birth to a boy made princess Masako depressed. I think it is inhuman to say someone is too old and has to hurry up and get pregnant. In the old days it was different. Women did not work and were regarded as factories. Giving birth to a boy was important. My grandmother is part of that generation, but Japanese society has changed.’

Unfortunately, there is a tendency not to speak openly about the royal family. ‘It is a taboo, as is the question of the responsibility of Japan during the Second World War. But the imperial system has a big influence on our society, so I think the discussion should be kept alive.’ The lack of a male heir finally got people talking. However, with the birth of a son to the second son of the present emperor, the discussion stopped. And Otsuki doubts whether it will start again soon. ‘Next month, our current prime minister Koizumi will step down.’ He already appointed his own successor a long time ago, but although this man shares most of his views, he lacks the same charm. ‘The current prime minister is very charismatic and is therefore able to get support even for less popular issues like changing the rules of succession to the throne.’

A first step was already made after Japan lost the war and was occupied by the allied forces. ‘The emperor had to declare that he was no longer God. Now he is just a symbol of the nation.’ But although his power is also only symbolic, most people in Japan still cling strongly to the ‘invented tradition’.

Otsuki was surprised to see that even young people cheered and waved with their flags after the birth of the male heir. ‘I think that since Japan has opened up to the rest of the world, people have been searching. Before they had to work very hard to earn just a small amount of money. Now almost everybody can afford many things they want, but they have got a little bit lost. Our imperial system is the last thing that everybody in Japan holds on to; it is part of Japanese identity.’

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