TOKYO • "A parasite who lives off taxpayers' money." That was how my father disparaged the Emperor of Japan. Back then, our emperor was Hirohito and my father's antipathy towards him was typical of Japanese intellectuals. I grew up thinking that the sooner the emperor was thrown out into the street, the better.
But as time went by and I watched the current monarch, Emperor Akihito, obligingly perform his symbolic duties, year after year, tirelessly greeting crowds and visiting victims of natural disasters, I mellowed.
I began to like him. I even began to pity the soft-spoken emperor, as did many of my compatriots, conservatives and liberals alike. His schedule is ruthless. His is a job no one wants.
Yet there is a job that's far worse: being married to an emperor. There have been days, as The Tale Of Genji tells us, when being one of the emperor's wives or concubines was the most enviable position a woman could attain. But 1,000 years later, times have changed, even if esoteric rituals remain the same. Today, marrying a future emperor is the last thing any sane woman would want.
Recently, Emperor Akihito made an unusual video appearance expressing his desire to retire. I listened with great sympathy. Then, thinking how his retirement might affect the imperial system, I realised to my surprise that I actually wanted the system to continue. After years of being in the minority, I have now aligned myself with a large majority of the population.
There are three reasons behind my change of heart. First, the least fortunate among us seem truly touched and comforted by the Emperor's visits and words. His role as consoler in chief has value.
Second, our prime ministers rotate so quickly that these men have become even more forgettable than they actually are. It makes diplomatic sense to have the Emperor as a recognisable face of the nation.
And third, just because most reasonable people in the West seem to think we should get rid of this particularly inscrutable, mist-shrouded institution, I'd like to see it continue. It's fun to see people shake their heads and roll their eyes.
Emperor Akihito's plea for retirement came as a reminder of a possibility that some people refuse to face: the imperial system may not survive, no matter how we feel about it.
The imperial family now has seven princesses and just one male heir in the youngest generation, the Crown Prince's nephew. If Emperor Akihito retires and the current Crown Prince ascends the throne, this nephew will be next, and last, in line. It is probable in this day and age that this precious nine-year-old boy will reach adulthood. The real question is, what woman in her right mind would want to marry him?
Over the past half-century, the Japanese people have witnessed the severe occupational hazards of marrying a future emperor. Empress Michiko suffered a month-long loss of voice because of stress; when she finally recovered, we were shocked to see a healthy young woman turn prematurely into an emaciated, frail figure, though still beautiful. Stress-related ailments continued to assail her. Yet she bore two sons (and a daughter), thus accomplishing her essential job: to produce an heir.
In contrast, Crown Princess Masako, a Harvard University graduate and former junior diplomat, was able to bear only a daughter after what was reported to be years of intense fertility treatments. She has effectively disappeared from public view, making only rare appearances.
"Why did she ever marry him?" my female friends often cry out. Crown Princess Masako not only was a commoner, but she also, like many well-educated women of today, had a career - or, rather, a career most well-educated women of today would love to have. Because we can identify with her, we keep wondering at her decision. Indeed, in an age when women have more options than ever before, why choose a life that reduces you to a womb to carry a son? Why bring back the memory of dark days in Japanese history when, under the patriarchal family law of 1898, every household was required to have a male heir? Unlike the imperial family, common people were allowed to adopt sons, but it was indeed a gloomy period for many women.
And so my friends and I all agree on one thing: No sane woman would ever marry the young prince, the sole heir.
What some people absurdly claim to be a 2,600-year-old male succession - with several ancient empresses acting as regent - was made possible only because of the existence of concubines. While insisting on male succession, the current Imperial House Law laudably, and naively, forbids them, laying the burden of producing an heir squarely on the wife's shoulders.
Yet Crown Princess Masako had at least one other woman who could and eventually did take over her job - the wife of the Crown Prince's brother, who gave birth to the last heir. The next time around, there will be no such substitute. Marrying the last heir would mean that the continuance of the 2,600-year-old tradition would depend solely on that wife's luck in bearing a son.
If the Japanese people want to see the imperial system survive, the first practical step would be to allow female succession to the throne, whatever the historical claims to exclusively male succession may be.
Nearly three-quarters of the population welcome the idea. After the new Constitution guaranteed gender equality in 1947, women made gains in many fields, but until recently we had yet to see a woman in a prominent public position.
Then came the landslide victory last month of Ms Yuriko Koike as the first female governor of Tokyo. Generally quiet Japanese voters turned overnight into imitations of boisterous Americans, chanting "Yuriko! Yuriko!" throughout her victory speech. The enthusiasm of her amazingly diverse supporters is clear testimony to the readiness of the Japanese people to see a reigning empress.
There is, of course, no way to secure the continuation of the imperial family permanently. An emperor is deprived of basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the commonest of Japanese: Like many monarchs, he can choose neither his occupation nor his place of residence, and he has no freedom of expression. Not only the Japanese imperial family but also other constitutional monarchies may one day self-destruct.
Before that day comes, let the Japanese people see a reigning empress stand in the centre when the imperial family waves to the crowd. Let them see her walk tall with her husband demurely following behind.
NEW YORK TIMES
•Minae Mizumura is the author of A True Novel and The Fall Of Language In The Age Of English.