Women’s Oppression and the Emperor System
Japan: Abolish the Monarchy—For a Workers Republic!

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 793, 13 December 2002.

We print below a translation of an article from Spartacist No. 26 (September 2002), publication of the Spartacist Group Japan, section of the International Communist League.

The debate over whether or not a female heir can ascend to the imperial throne, intensified after the birth of the “royal baby” last December, has brought together supposedly diverse elements, ranging from the anti-woman, ultra-nationalist [Prime Minister] Koizumi to bourgeois feminists to Doi Takako, leader of the Social Democratic Party [SDP]. This thoroughly reactionary debate has nothing to do with “gender equality,” as anyone who lives in this deeply entrenched and revoltingly male chauvinist society should know. Rather it is about how best to salvage the “imperial household” and recast the blood-stained emperor system as a “monarchy for the masses.” If word of this debate were to reach Kanno Suga, executed by the government in 1911 [for plotting to assassinate the emperor], she would be writhing in her grave.

It was under the name of the emperor that Japanese imperialism and its military committed monstrous crimes during the Pacific War [World War II]—the Nanjing Massacre, the Nazi-like biological military Unit 731, the brutal colonization and subjugation of half the Asian continent, the enslavement of the ianfu [comfort women] and forced laborers, and the massive roundups and imprisonment of burakumin [descendants of feudal-era outcasts] and the heroic men and women of this country who fought against social injustice. We call for the abolition of this reactionary institution and the establishment of a workers republic.

It doesn’t matter if the monarch’s chromosomes are XY or XX—the emperor system is a feudal anachronism that should have been swept away a long time ago. Its ideological purpose is as a popular focus for national chauvinism and reaction. Only in a country where women are so oppressed would any woman find the prospect of an empress appealing. One need only look at Britain which has a queen to see that gender is no impediment to the ruthless pursuit of the imperialist, anti-working-class goals of the British capitalist class. In this country, women’s oppression is deeply intertwined with the perpetuation of the emperor system, whose purpose is to sanctify social and sexual hierarchy, the family, private property and the “glory” of the Japanese state.

If the emperor system were abolished, women would still not be liberated. We would still have a capitalist system in which women are oppressed. The ever-present degradation, inequalities and superstitions that target women can only be rooted out by a workers revolution that dislodges the capitalists and their kings (or queens) and places the proletariat in power. That’s why we fight for socialist revolution. The fight for women’s rights goes hand in hand with the struggles of the organized working class as a whole against an exploiting class that considers its rule an “immutable right.” The tremendous wealth in this country is produced by the sweat and toil of its working people—both female and male. Those who labor must rule!

Rallying Symbol for Reaction

The overriding concern of the ruling class is that in the last few decades only daughters have been born to the imperial family. Journalist Keiko Tatsuta bluntly summed up the anxiety: “If no boys are born in the future, the Imperial Household itself would theoretically no longer exist” (Japan Times, 24 November 2001). It is not just for ideological purposes that the emperor system is important for Japanese capitalism. The monarchy has always been the bourgeoisie’s favored institution in periods of social turmoil. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration used the emperor as a “divine umbrella” to legitimize their rule. After Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, the emperor system was preserved through a bargain between the Japanese ruling class and the U.S. occupation forces for the single purpose of clamping down on working-class struggle at a time when social revolution was a real possibility. Today, in the midst of mass unemployment, welfare cuts and homelessness, privatizations and an increasingly strong state mounting an offensive to remilitarize the country, the continued, orchestrated “royal baby watch” is intended to unite the nation around a common cause.

The emperor system is not merely an affront to the proletariat of this country and Asia. According to the constitution, the emperor’s role is supposedly limited to such things as acting as adviser and spokesman for the ruling class, performing certain functions of state like putting his “divine” seal of approval on a new prime minister. The existence of these limits obscures the real danger to the proletariat the monarchy could once again become. In recent years, the emperor has been acting more and more like the head of state, and several attempts have been made to bring back laws against lèse majesté. The emperor system is the rallying cry of the fascistic and militaristic right wing, who have become more emboldened since official recognition of the hinomaru and kimigayo [flag and anthem], both symbols of the emperor and imperial Japan. In any deep future crisis of the bourgeois order, the emperor would be wielded as a buttress to reactionary mobilizations and a sign of “legitimacy” for a government of extreme reaction.

The Left and the Emperor System

The politics of the reformist left consists of oppositional activity within the framework of bourgeois society, characterized by Trotsky as “the training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state.” The emperor system continues unimpeded by the fake left in this country. The primary responsibility for this lies with the SDP and Communist Party (JCP), both mass bourgeois-workers parties with a pro-capitalist leadership and program, and a predominantly working-class membership. As part of their general commitment to capitalism, they help prop up this symbol of privilege. When Hirohito [emperor during World War II] died in 1989, Doi Takako signed the condolence book and attended the funeral. In the summer of 2000, JCP leader Fuwa sent condolences on the death of the Empress Dowager because they grew up during the same years! Loyal opposition parties indeed.

The SDP and JCP’s shameless acceptance of the emperor system is a key component in suppressing working-class anger and opposition to this feudal remnant. Since its inception as the Japan Socialist Party, the SDP has embraced this reactionary institution, ending its founding conference in 1945 with the three banzai shouts [“Long live the emperor!”]. In April 2001 in the shadow of the crown princess’s pregnancy, the SDP leadership met, whereby “Doi Takako took a positive posture toward a female emperor on the basis of gender equality. However, within the party, this question is not completely resolved” (Women’s Information, January 2002). What was resolved eight months later was “to send congratulations on the birth of a child who has been anticipated. We hope for her healthy growth.”

When the Communist Party thought they had an opportunity to administer a capitalist Japan in 1998, they revised their long-held position of opposition to the emperor system. As reported in the Japan Press Weekly (8 December 2001), “JCP Secretariat Head Ichida Tadayoshi said, ‘Parliament can give a congratulatory message as a form of courtesy on a festive event of the family which is referred to as the symbol of the state by the Constitution.... The JCP envisages a future in which the Tenno [emperor] system will end based on the people’s consensus. At the present, the JCP is committed to defending every clause of the Constitution!” This was echoed by party head Shii a few days later when he said, “The birth of any new life is equally delightful” (Women’s Information, January 2002). Sharing in the so-called democratic happiness over a new life is quite a bitter pill to swallow for its membership, which understands well that all life is hardly equal in a capitalist society.

Bourgeois Panic over Falling Marriage, Birth Rates

Hirohito’s death was like a gift for the imperial family, lifting it from its “tainted” history. Today, it is presented as the “nation’s first family, united with the people in warmth and affection.” No longer surrounded by the aura of divinity, the imperial family is supposed to mirror a “modern, democratic, middle-class Japan.” Now we are being saturated with news stories about the royal family as if they lived in the neighboring apartment complex, or the three-generation house next door.

The Empress Michiko is portrayed as a “commoner” who raised her own children and “assumed some of the typical duties of a housewife.” Princess Masako, a “Harvard educated woman who gave up her career to settle down and have a family,” is held up as a role model for women who are increasingly postponing both marriage and having children. This is the borrowed womb [women whose “function” is to produce an heir] and good wife/ wise mother recast for the 21st century.

The police crackdown on high school girls hanging out in Shibuya and Ikebukuro [districts of Tokyo], the media smear campaign against young women, labeling them as selfish “parasite singles,” the stigma and laws against illegitimate children, the one surname per family rule, the refusal to give pensions to divorced women, the cutting of subsidies for single mothers are all frontal assaults against women in an attempt to bolster the sanctity of the nuclear family for the “good of the nation.”

With the lowest birthrate of almost any nation, the population agency in the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has been working overtime, churning out scare stories that within 100 years the population of Japan would not even fill the Tokyo Dome [baseball park]. A recent survey found that more than half the women in their 20s are not married, and have no plans to do so, prompting Cabinet Secretary “Japan must go nuclear” Fukuda to promote the recent marriage of teenage pop diva Utada Hikaru by saying, “We want lots of people to get married and have many children” (BBC, 6 September).

Responding to the government’s hysteria, the local government of Aji, a small town in Kagawa Prefecture, has started organizing omiai [marriage introductions] to deal with its dwindling population. Chibu in Shimane Prefecture was the first village to begin a “cash for babies” program. In the early 1990s they began offering ten calves to every farming family that had a child. Around the same time, Kawano in Fukui Prefecture instituted its “give birth and nurture incentive program,” which offers 100,000 yen [about $800] for the first and second children, ¥1 million for the third and a whopping ¥1.5 million for each subsequent child. The program notes that if a couple “produces” 15 children, they would be entitled to more than ¥19 million. We note, that is if the couple can find the energy to do so after being almost karoshi-ed [overworked] to death, and if they can find the privacy for those few moments of intimacy that are so sorely lacking for most families in this country. Not surprisingly, the instigator of this program, which is reminiscent of World War II campaign slogans to procreate, was formerly in the kempeitai [prewar military thought-police].

The JCP jumped on this reactionary baby bandwagon in 1999 when they announced that a high birthrate is an index of social equality for women. The next year they noted that their “proposal for economic reforms to correct ‘capitalism without rules’ is closely connected with the task of overcoming the ‘low birthrates’” (“Draft Resolution of the 22nd Congress of the Japanese Communist Party,” 2000). We wonder whether their next step will be to hand out “medals for motherhood,” just like Joseph Stalin did.

Decisions concerning whether to marry or not, to have children or not, the sex of one’s companion or who one sleeps with are individual and consensual matters, and none of the government’s nor the JCP’s business. What is needed is the teaching of reproductive biology in the schools; education on AIDS; free, safe birth control for all who want it; free, 24-hour day-care centers and nursing care for the elderly; free education and a living stipend for all students; and affordable housing. These are transitional demands, most of which will not be met under capitalism, but are a bridge between today’s conditions and the consciousness of wide layers of the working class which lead to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.

Women’s Oppression and Class Society

Women’s oppression is rooted in the institution of the family and has been a feature of all class societies. The family is a key social unit for the maintenance of capitalism. For the capitalists, the family provides the basis for passing on accumulated wealth. And where there is no property to pass on, the institutionalized family serves to raise the next generation of workers, care for the sick and aged, and instill conservative social values and obedience to authority. It is the family—and the necessity to control sexual access to the woman to ensure that the man knows who his real heir is—which generates the morality codified in and reinforced by religion. It is the family that throughout a woman’s life gives definition to her oppressed state: as daughter, as wife, as mother. As 19th century revolutionary Friedrich Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884): “The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and became a mere instrument for the production of children.”

Engels went on to explain that “the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry.” For genuine communists, the rate of women’s participation in the labor force is a real index of their social status, and the higher the better. We understand and appreciate that the social conditions under which working people live are determined in struggle against the capitalist class. The fight for the full integration of women into the workforce is literally a life and death question for the Japanese working class, which is either unemployed, literally working itself to death, or committing karojisatsu [suicide brought on by too much overtime]. Women and minority and immigrant laborers are a key ally in the fight for a shorter work week.

Among the results of a union misleadership that won’t fight for women’s rights are weak unions that don’t defend any of their members and an uncontested misogynist climate in society as a whole. The leadership of all three union federations has refused to fight against the exclusion of women and minorities from full-time employment in major industries. They also refuse to organize part-time, non-lifetime and so-called contingent workers, all of whom are predominantly female. Women comprise less than 20 percent of the union membership in this country, and less than 5 percent of the executive union posts. In desperation, several separate women’s unions have been formed, only further dividing and weakening the working class.

The only effective response to the capitalists’ offensive is united class struggle, mobilizing the broadest ranks of labor in the interest of all workers. We fight to organize the unorganized, unionize all “non-regular,” minority and immigrant workers into common industrial unions that would fight for the full integration of women into the workforce; for equal pay for equal work; and for equal access to free technical training and job upgrading.

The 1917 Russian Revolution: Committed to Full Social Equality for Women

The 1917 October Revolution was the first—and to date the only—successful socialist revolution in history. After the working class seized power in its own name led by the Bolshevik Party, the new Soviet government under Lenin and Trotsky took immediate steps to alleviate the oppression of women. The aim of the Soviet legislation was the replacement of the nuclear family as a social and economic unit through the socialization of household labor and the equalization of educational and vocational opportunities. These two goals were key to the undermining of the capitalist social order and to the construction of a new society. The government took steps toward replacing women’s household drudgery by setting up cafeterias, laundries, and childcare centers to allow women to enter productive employment.

Illegitimacy was abolished in law, eliminating discrimination against children born outside of marriage and freeing mothers from the burden of a double standard which had punished them for the consequences of having had the child. Subsequent legislation declared marriage to be a contract between free and equal individuals that could be dissolved at the request of either partner, eliminated all discrimination against homosexuals, established hundreds of institutions devoted to the care of mothers and children (at no cost), made abortion legal, free and available on demand, assured equal pay for equal work, and opened up unheard of opportunities for women in industry, the professions, the party and government. Thousands of schools were opened to women for the first time on the basis of preferential admissions. These sweeping gains were possible because the working class expropriated the property of the capitalists and established a planned, collectivized economy.

The Bolsheviks were limited in what they could actually implement in the way of replacing the functions of the family by collective social institutions in a relatively backward country, mainly peasant in its composition, which had been materially devastated by World War I and the ensuing civil war. Still, their example points the way to what could be accomplished under the rule of the proletariat in a far more economically and technologically advanced country like Japan.

The October Russian Revolution has been undone and its gains destroyed. Surrounded and pounded by the imperialists for seven decades, the Soviet Union was destroyed by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. We fought for unconditional military defense of the USSR against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution up until the very last barricade. The responsibility for the Soviet counterrevolution lies primarily with the Stalinist bureaucracy which usurped political power from the working class in 1923-24 and betrayed the revolutionary purpose of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party and the revolutionary Communist International that they founded. Not the least of the Stalinists’ crimes were the glorification of the family and the reversal of many gains for women. We called for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and return to the road of Lenin and Trotsky.

The Struggle for an Egalitarian Socialist World

The woman question is a lever for revolution. The liberation of women is central to our program and we consider the question of women’s participation in the revolutionary struggle as a strategic question. In short, this means that without the participation of women, without women leading and organizing the work and the struggles, the working class and its revolutionary party would fail in its historic tasks.

Liberating women from family servitude and the myriad of feudally derived traditions tied to the continued existence of the emperor system is a central task of a Japanese workers republic. The emancipation of women requires a socialist revolution and the creation of a planned economy in which women will have full access to participation in the productive forces of society, and the institution of the family will be replaced with collective childcare and housework. Marxists fight to rip the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists in order to put them at the service of the needs of the working people who create the wealth. The program of communism is for a classless society in which the family is transcended by superior sexual and social relations which will be free of moral or economic coercion. Our slogan is: “For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!”

For new October Revolutions to free the working class from the tyranny of capital—and the monarchy!

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