TOKYO--As part of the historic handover of Japan’s imperial throne Wednesday, the incoming emperor, Naruhito, will receive a sword, a jewel and official seals in a sacred ceremony that dates back thousands of years.

Naruhito, 59, is to take the Chrysanthemum Throne a day after his father, Emperor Akihito, 85, becomes the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in more than 200 years.

The ascension ceremony in a state room at the imperial palace will make history in another way: For the first time in the modern era, a woman will be present. Satsuki Katayama, the sole woman in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will be on hand to witness this first step in Naruhito’s enthronement.

But the new empress, Masako, Naruhito’s wife of 26 years, will not be allowed to attend--another illustration of the diminished status of women in the imperial family and of the challenges women face more broadly in Japanese society.

Under the Imperial Household Law, which governs the line of succession as well as most matters of protocol related to Japan’s monarchy, women in the royal family are not permitted to be in the room when the new emperor receives the sacred regalia signifying his rightful succession to the world’s oldest monarchy.

But the prohibitions go much further. Women are not allowed to reign on the throne. In fact, women born into the royal family must officially leave it once they marry, and none of their children can be in line to the throne.

Those rules have left the imperial family with precious few heirs. After Naruhito takes the throne, the line of succession will include his uncle, Prince Hitachi, 83, Naruhito’s younger brother, Prince Akishino, 53, and Akishino’s son, Prince Hisahito, 12. The only child of Naruhito and Masako, Princess Aiko, 17, will not be eligible to sit on the throne.

When Japan’s parliament passed a one-time law in 2017 allowing Akihito to abdicate, it attached an addendum that encouraged the government to study possible reforms that would allow women in the royal family to remain within the imperial household after marrying and grant them the right to head legitimate lines of succession.

Bowing to conservative pressure, the addendum did not mention allowing women to sit on the throne.

Abe’s government, which, to mixed success, has pushed a platform of women’s empowerment in Japan’s society and economy, promised to open discussions about women in the imperial family soon after Naruhito ascends the throne this week.

“I don’t think this would be their preference,” said Kenneth J. Ruoff, a historian and specialist in Imperial Japan at Portland State University. “But they don’t have any choice. They are facing extinction of the imperial line.”

Conservatives often underscore the importance of tradition to try to justify the pure male line of succession.

“If a female or the child of a female royal succeeds to the throne, it would be a major change,” said Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor of law and philosophy at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. “The imperial family would lose its legitimacy.”

But historians point out that imperial traditions have changed over time.

“The idea that succession is limited to males is a modern invention,” said Kathryn Tanaka, an associate professor of cultural and historical studies at Otemae University in Nishinomiya, Japan. She added, “This is not about ‘tradition,’ but rather reflects specific political and patriarchal world views.”

The Japanese stipulation that the throne must pass through the male line dates back only to the Meiji era in the 19th century. Japanese myth traces the emperor’s lineage back 2,700 years, and in the 125 generations of recorded monarchs, eight women were allowed to rule as empresses when no adult men were eligible at the time.

Public opinion also strongly favors allowing women to sit on the throne. In a poll conducted by The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest daily newspaper, more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they would support a female emperor.

Japan’s royal family is out of step with monarchies elsewhere in the world. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II has sat on the throne for more than six decades, and royal successors in the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Spain are all young women.

Analysts point out that even excluding the new empress from a key part of her husband’s enthronement ceremony is incongruent with Japan’s efforts to promote gender equality.

“They are forgetting how this is going to play internationally,” said Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. “Just the image of the Cabinet with one woman sticking out and then, hey, where’s his wife, the future empress--that would be my question.”

Given that Akihito’s abdication itself represents a break with tradition, observers say the transition to a new era is a good opportunity to refresh other customs of the imperial family.

“I would like for my granddaughter to be inheriting a world where people say, ‘No, that might be the tradition, but like we’ve been able to change the view on abdication, we now have changed the view on female members of the imperial family not being present at this ceremony,’” said Melanie Brock, who has lived in Japan for 27 years and runs a consulting firm for foreign companies looking to do business in Japan.

The incoming empress herself, Masako, was once a symbol of potential change in the monarchy. Before she married Naruhito, she was a fast-rising diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Ministry, and some hoped that she could help modernize the role of women in the imperial family.

But when she became a princess, she gave up her career and suffered under intense pressure to produce a male heir. She has largely stayed out of the public eye in recent years.

“Her presence communicates with the Japanese public her sacrifice and reluctance and ambivalence at even being there,” said Kumiko Nemoto, professor of sociology at Kyoto University School of Foreign Studies.

Nemoto said that Masako, in giving up professional life when she married, “made a sacrifice that a lot of women in her generation made.”

Given how long it took for parliament to pass a law allowing Akihito to abdicate--he is stepping down close to three years after he indicated he wanted to retire--any change is likely to come slowly.

Still, given efforts made by Japanese women to embrace both career and family, “I think there is a feeling among ordinary Japanese people that we have to change the system as the expectations of society change,” said Masako Egawa, a professor of business administration at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

But political analysts warned against investing the imperial family with too much power to influence social change.

“It is nonsense from my perspective that the new empress cannot attend the important ceremony of succession,” said Lully Miura, who runs a think tank called the Yamaneko Research Institute.

“Having said that, I also must express my concern over the politicization of the imperial family, which might undermine autonomous democratic institutions. Both sides of the Japanese political spectrum try to use the imperial family to promote their own political agenda.”

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Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

(April 29, 2019)