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Japan's New Emperor Naruhito Ascends Throne, But His Wife Wasn't Allowed In The Room

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today Japan welcomed a new emperor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMPORER NARUHITO: (Speaking Japanese).

CORNISH: Emperor Naruhito's ascension is historic in more than one way. His father was the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in over 200 years. And for the first time in modern times, a woman was in the room for that ceremony. But she was a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet, not the new empress.

New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Motoko Rich says this illustrates the status that women have within the royal family. She joins me now from Japan to talk more about it. Welcome to the program.

MOTOKO RICH: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So there is a new empress, Naruhito's wife. And yet she wasn't allowed to be in the room for the ceremony. How come?

RICH: So there was a government committee that made a decision based on kind of long-term customs, and they decided that for this particular ceremony in which there were sacred - a sword, jewels and seals handed over to the new emperor, that only adult male members of the royal family could be there.

CORNISH: There are other rules that pertain to women in the royal family. They're not allowed to reign as emperor, for example. And yet I understand this is a relatively new rule because women have ruled in Japan before.

RICH: That's right. There have been eight woman emperors - or empresses - who've ruled on the throne. But back in the 19th century, the rules were changed to limit the line of succession not only saying that no woman could serve on the throne, but any woman who's born into the family - so, say, for example, the current emperor's sister - when she married, she had to leave the family.

So we're now at a point where the Japanese imperial family has just three heirs left. And one of them is 83 years old. One of them is 53 years old. And then there's the 12-year-old boy.

CORNISH: Why has this become such a flashpoint? Is it saying something about the broader role of women in Japanese society?

RICH: Well, there is a bit of an irony because the current prime minister, who's going to be, before long, the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese post-war history or in all of Japanese prime minister history, has a sort of campaign that he's talked about repeatedly called womenomics about bringing more women into the workplace, empowering women so as to energize Japan's economy.

So at a time when there's sort of all this talk about empowering women more broadly in society, the royal family - which is, in fact, considered by, constitutionally, the symbol of Japan - limiting its line of succession to men seems jarring to have this male-exclusive line of succession at a time when Japan is trying to at least eliminate gender inequality.

CORNISH: So in fact, did the prime minister's push in talking about women and talking about it in the context of the economy kind of nudge the royal family - right? - or nudge this discussion along?

RICH: Well, in some ways. One of the things that his party did was when they passed a special law to allow the former emperor to abdicate, they added a clause that said, we should at least consider allowing women born into the family to stay in the family so that if they marry and have children and those children are boys, those boys can be eligible to succeed the throne.

And in fact, right before the ceremony to enthrone the emperor today, there was - the chief cabinet secretary gave a speech, and he said that we will consider that; we will - you know, we promised we're going to look at that, and we will look at that.

CORNISH: That's Motoko Rich. She's the New York Times Tokyo bureau chief. Thank you for speaking with us.

RICH: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACKBOXX'S "A HAUNTING (MACONDO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.