September 6th, 2006


A refreshing feeling that reminds us of whatever we believe in

I'd like to join those who are congratulating Princess Kiko on the birth of her son today. It gave me a little pang of joy to hear the news, because demography, children and the continuation of the traditions of the Chrysanthemum Throne are all important and emotive topics for the Japanese.

It's been interesting to see how the news got reported. Some coverage, like the BBC's, stressed the emotional tone-colour, picking out probable future PM Shinzo Abe's line: "It's a refreshing feeling that reminds us of a clear autumn sky". (Personally, I'd love to see Tony Blair's eventual resignation covered with this kind of poetry: "The blossom has now fallen, after excessive clinging to a blood-spattered branch.")

There were also empathetic reports of the joy of ordinary Japanese. "Women clad in traditional yukata summer kimono gave a dance of joy in a public square outside of JR Mejiro Station in Tokyo's Toshima-ku Wednesday to celebrate the arrival into the world of a new Prince," reported the Mainichi Daily News, which sold 2000 extra copies of its special commemorative issue at Shinjuku station alone.

The Western press either saw the event from an economic or a political perspective. For every report that the royal birth was creating a boom in baby-related products -- or quoting grumpy taxi drivers saying the royals sponged off the taxes of ordinary Japanese -- there seemed to be three seeing the important drama here as the one being played out between Japanese conservatives (who are against a matrilineal royal family) and reformers (those who, like Koizumi, want to let females carry on the royal line). Many articles almost seemed to cast this latest royal birth as a blow to "feminism in Japan".

From a certain angle, the whole story really does look like a Grimm fairy tale rewritten as a didactic soap opera by a gender equality commission. We have two "sisters" incarnating two different types of woman. The younger one, Princess Kiko, has given birth to the boy-child that the elder, Princess Masako was unable to. Kiko is easily stereotyped as softly feminine and compliant, whereas Masako is the Harvard-educated (according to the New York Times) or Oxford-educated (according to the London Times) career diplomat who fell into a depression thanks to remorseless pressure from the evil Imperial Household Agency to produce a male child. Harvard- (or Oxford-, if you're English) educated Masako is the West's horse in this race, but the outcome most Western commentators seem to prefer is that neither of them should produce a male heir, thus forcing the imperial system to change.

Tellingly, none of these commentators are calling for the abolition of the imperial family in Japan. Venturing anywhere near the opinion that someone else's imperial system should be scrapped would look a bit like meddling, and after all, many of us in the West have royal families too. What harm do they do?

Instead, these Western commentators want the Japanese imperial family to "modernize" and Westernize from within. The villains of the piece, for Time and the New York Times, are the Imperial Household Agency, the state bureaucracy which keeps tight control on the royals, and the "resurgent" Japanese conservatives, right-wingers and nationalists who resist all change. The Japanese can keep their institutions, but not keep them unchanged.

"Former Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma's xenophobic comments were typical," Time reported. "If Aiko becomes the reigning empress and gets involved with a blue-eyed foreigner while studying abroad and marries him, their child may become emperor," he said in February. "We should never let that happen."

Those articles which went on long enough did eventually mention that there have been eight Japanese empresses already (although they haven't been able to transmit the imperial DNA; they were seen as stop-gaps until a male emperor could come along), and that a majority of Japanese people are rather in favour of allowing women to ascend to the imperial throne, and pass on the imperial genes. After all, Japan was founded by a mother figure, the sun goddess Amaterasu.

As usual, Western coverage of the royal birth attacked Japanese ethnocentrism without examining its own. Extremist figures in the shadows of Japan's political fringe were invoked, but also isolated from the opinions of the person on the street. Nobody was criticizing Michiyo Miyamura, the 39-year-old Setagaya-ku housewife who told the Mainichi News: "I'm the same age as Princess Kiko, so I was almost as happy as though it was my child," she said. "I'm so glad it was a baby boy."

It's much easier, obviously, to say "There are some creepy right wing xenophobic politicians in Japan who worry us" than to say "Japan's people and traditional institutions are wrong, and worry us". That, after all, would be a bit creepy and xenophobic in itself. It would leave us open to accusations that our own right wing was doing more than trying to preserve its royal family: it was actually invading other countries and restructuring them "for their own good".

It's also perhaps better to leave unexamined the basic assumption that a depressed Western-educated "career diplomat" is necessarily a better kind of woman than a happy Japanese mother.

In the words of an actual career diplomat, Sha Zukang, China's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva: "It's better for the US to shut up. Keep quiet. It's much, much better." His advice was a response to Donald Rumsfeld's concerns about China's military spending. In 2005 China spent $35 billion on its military. The US spent more than $420 billion.

Whatever we actually do, we still want to speak as if we're the ones who best love women, peace, and other people's right to celebrate their colourful traditions. They have a scary right wing, we don't. They're militarists, we aren't. They treat their women badly, we don't. They criticize foreigners, we don't -- except when we're criticizing the foreigners who criticize foreigners. We like to think well of ourselves. Luckily, they don't.