The queen’s grandson Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, is second in line to the throne after his father Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. His wife, Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is pregnant. Under the present rules, if her first child were to be a daughter and they subsequently had a boy, the boy would automatically become the next in the line of succession.

The British government has decided that the present succession rule is out of date and does not conform to the principle of gender equality. This view is shared by all Commonwealth countries, which have retained the queen as their head of state. Legislation will accordingly be brought forward to change the rule before the Duchess’s baby is born.

So if she has a daughter, the daughter will be in line to succeed as monarch in the course of time. This change in the law is likely to be passed without dissent. Gender equality is now almost universally accepted. The established Church of England recently rejected the appointment of women bishops but this decision was due to opposition by a minority and is likely to be reversed.

In Japan a similar change in the succession law was suggested some years ago before Prince Akishino’s son was born, but it was strongly opposed by conservative diehards for whom male primogeniture seems to be regarded as sacrosanct. In the view of some observers these diehards (including some officials in the Imperial Household) have hardly yet come into the 20th century let alone the 21st century.

There still seem to be some Japanese who think that the only real job for women is housework and looking after children. Nevertheless, if a Japanese politician were once again to declare that the main function of Japanese women was to act as a reproduction machine, he would, I hope, “be laughed out of court.”

The election of a woman as president of South Korea is a significant development, but anti-Korean attitudes among some Japanese seem likely to prevent this becoming a precedent for Japan. Continuing male chauvinism among Japanese politicians and the absence of any outstanding female politician suggest that it will be a long time before a Japanese women is elected as prime minister.

Japanese women have held Cabinet posts, but their political impact has been limited and some such as Tanaka Makiko and Doi Takako have had detractors — female as well as male.

Unfortunately politicians, especially but not uniquely in Japan, have such a poor reputation that the best qualified people do not want to go into politics. Moreover, the Japanese electoral system with its cabals and the drinking, eating and male-only partying, which are such a feature of the system, are not conducive to success by women political aspirants.

Senior Japanese business women are still a relatively rare phenomenon. Most Japanese boards of directors lack even a token woman director. In international comparisons, Japan appears way down on the list, somewhere among the most traditional Middle Eastern countries. This is partly due to the way in which women are recruited and often used simply as receptionists and tea servers. Japanese business systems also make it very difficult for women who take time off to bear and rear children to return to responsible jobs.

Japanese women have found it easier to get good jobs with foreign companies where prejudice against women executives is frowned on. Japanese women who study English often become more competent than their male contemporaries. They make better interpreters than men except where men have been brought up in a bilingual environment.

Women are better represented in the professions, academia and the arts. But women have had to push hard to gain promotion.

Japanese women, given the same educational opportunities, are just as capable as men of holding down difficult jobs. In Britain girls often achieve better grades at school and university than boys partly because they are often better motivated; I doubt whether Japanese girls are less intelligent than Japanese boys.

The number two post in the British Embassy is currently filled by a senior woman diplomat; the counsellor in charge of commercial work in the embassy is also an experienced woman diplomat. Apparently they have no difficulty in performing their duties and do not experience discrimination because they are women. This suggests that attitudes are changing in more enlightened circles.

Gender equality is hindered by the continuation of the practice, which is particularly prevalent in Japan, that sons, grandsons and even great grandsons should continue to run Japanese businesses or follow in their fathers’ professions.

Children of successful entrepreneurs are often spoilt as children and as a result lack the incentive of poverty to succeed even if they have inherited some of their father’s flair. It is even rarer that grandchildren have the same drive and ability as their grandparents. To some extent the problem has been bypassed in Japan by the tradition of adopting a suitable spouse for a daughter. Artists and actors also obviate this problem by simply passing on their name to a pupil or apprentice of ability.

In Japan there are many second- generation and some third-generation politicians. Perhaps this is one reason why Japanese politics lacks leaders of outstanding ability and is in such a mess.

Discrimination in favor of women is not the key to achieve gender equality. This can only be achieved by equal opportunities for both sexes and by ensuring that appointments and promotion are made on the basis of merit and past achievement and are not influenced by gender prejudice.

If Japan is to maintain its competitive position in the world and not experience further economic decline it needs to ensure that gender equality is achieved in practice and not just in principle. Japan needs as a matter of urgency to make better use of Japan’s intelligent women, who constitute such a large section of Japanese people of working age.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.