Sign Up

What Japan Can Learn from Kate Middleton’s England

What does Japan’s monarchy’s need of a male heir say about gender equality?

December 8, 2012

Credit: Mr Pics/

Severe morning sickness may be weighing down the princess formerly known as Kate Middleton in the early stages of pregnancy. But one thing is clear: her husband and her country will love her regardless of whether she gives birth to a boy or a girl. And that is a hard-won blessing that royalty in other parts of the world can only dream of.

Five centuries have passed since the English King Henry VIII went through six wives in quick succession, driven by a compulsion to have a male heir. Of his six queens, only Jane Seymour succeeded in having the much sought-after son. She died in childbirth while the boy, Edward VI, passed away when he was 16 years old.

History has taught Britain an important lesson, though. Some of its strongest leaders — from Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I to Margaret Thatcher to the current queen — have been women. In the United Kingdom, there is thankfully no reason any longer why a female could not reign as monarch following Prince William.

Indeed, six months after Middleton’s marriage to William in October 2011, the British government changed the male primogeniture system, which allows younger brothers to inherit the throne before their older sisters.

By changing to a system of absolute primogeniture, Britain and the Commonwealth nations will accept the firstborn of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, regardless of gender, as the royal to inherit the throne after Prince William.

The legal changes to ensure gender equality on the throne put the British monarchy in the same camp as Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium. These other European nations all changed their laws over the past two decades to reflect the growing power women have in society at large.

In contrast, throughout the Middle East the Saudi Arabian model of agnatic seniority is quite common. Under this approach, a male offspring always inherits the throne, but preference is given to the king’s younger brothers over his own sons.

Japan, on the other hand, has struggled mightily to make the necessary constitutional reforms to allow female succession. The efforts have instead led to a divided royal household and personal sacrifice.

When she married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, hopes were high among Japanese women in particular that an elite career diplomat like Masako Owada would boost the popularity not only of the imperial family. It was also hoped she could help professional women to carve out more of their own roles in Japanese society.

Two decades later, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Princess Masako continues to suffer from debilitating depression that will not allow her to perform most of her public roles. And all of that simply because she has failed to produce a male heir.

There had been efforts over the years to change the constitution to ensure that her only child, 11-year-old Princess Aiko, will be able to inherit the throne. But those efforts have so far been in vain. Under current law, Aiko must step aside to allow her cousin, the six-year-old Prince Hisahito, son of Naruhito’s younger brother, to ascend to the throne.

As for Princess Aiko, when and if she eventually decides to marry outside her family, she will immediately be stripped of her title and all of the trappings that go with it. Her aunt, Princess Sayoko, her father’s younger sister, had to take driving lessons and learn how to go shopping at a supermarket before she became Mrs. Kuroda in 2005.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Japanese legislators will rally to change the Imperial Household Law of 1947 so that it would allow a firstborn of a monarch to reign, regardless of gender. In that case, Aiko would succeed to the throne.

That seems increasingly unlikely, though, given the assumption that her younger cousin will inherit the throne. If that comes to pass, it would further cement the prevailing Japanese male mind-set that men are better than women.

Marrying a prince has been fraught with dangers in centuries past, and infertility as well as the failure to produce a male heir could quickly kick a woman off her pedestal. The fact is that Kate Middleton does not have to worry about how her firstborn will be welcomed by the British establishment.

That she is not defined by whether or not she will be a mother to a son sends a powerful message not just in Britain, but across the globe. All babies are — or ought to be — first-rate in the eyes of their parents.

The glitter of royalty is a powerful communications tool that no government service announcement can match. A monarchy that adores its children, whether boy or girl, sends a powerful message about gender equality, and that alone should justify keeping up the funding for the royal family.


Britain will accept the first-born of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as the royal to inherit the throne after Prince William, regardless of gender.

European nations all changed their laws over the past two decades to reflect the growing power women have in society at large.

A monarchy that adores its children, whether boy or girl, sends a powerful message about gender equality.