The Case of Japan’s Princess Masako: Sons Over Daughters

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The other day, I was reading an article about how Japan’s Princess Aiko has been missing school because of bullying by some boys at her elementary school. While this news is disturbing in itself, what caught my attention was the reference the article made to Aiko’s mother, Princess Masako. Anybody remember this woman? Her story still makes me emotional.

When I was a little girl, it was the glamor of England’s Princess Diana that captivated my sisters and I. Yes, it’s a huge stereotype  for young girls to be infatuated with princesses, but there is something about real live ones, especially when you are just a little girl. As I grew older however, it was Princess Masako who really captured my imagination.

The daughter of a Japanese diplomat and President of the International Court of Justice, Masako attended both Harvard and Oxford before marrying into the conservative Japanese Royal Family.

The pairing of a modern and educated woman like Masako, who had worked at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs before her marriage, seemed to signal a new dawn for the notoriously private and traditional Japanese Royal Family. Japanese women would have an accomplished and independent role model to look up to, one who would very much be in the public eye.  It appeared to me as though the world was about to be introduced to its first modern-day Princess.

But the world never saw Princess Masako come into her public role.  Though widely speculated in the media for years, it has officially been confirmed that the Princess, pretty much absent from the public’s eye since early 2000, suffers from “nervous and emotional disorders.”

The Japanese Royal Family calls her condition an “adjustment disorder,” even though sources confirm that the pressure to produce a male heir caused Masako to seek professional treatment.

How incredibly sad and disturbing that in this day and age the pressure to give birth to a son literally cost this woman her sanity. It is even more upsetting that Masako was such an educated and accomplished woman. It is a loss to women all over the world that we never got to see Princess Masako come into bloom,  into her full potential, both privately and publicly.

Ancient Japanese Imperial Law stipulates that succession is passed solely through male heirs, hence the intense familial pressure placed on Masako. However, it is  not only in Japan where we see this kind of stress on women. Around the world, sons are still valued more than daughters, especially in the Global South.

One just has to pay attention to common phrases thrown at pregnant women to get a sense of which gender a culture values. In Bangladesh, we say having a son first is “good luck,” and next door in India, where the intentional aborting of female fetuses is so common that there is literally a shortage of women in the country, a common blessing for expectant women is, “may you be the mother of a hundred sons.”

Sex-selective abortions in Asia, especially in India and China, show us that a son in some parts of the world is still viewed as an investment, while a daughter is considered a burden. The Economist even published an article recently detailing this on-going phenomenon, calling it a  “worldwide war on baby girls.”

It is 2010 and we are dealing with global gendercide.

Ironic that I am writing this post  on International Women’s Day, a time to recognize and celebrate women’s accomplishments around the world. But today we should not only celebrate how far women have come, but recognize how far we still have to go. Forget the princess fantasies: Simply recognizing cultural biases towards sons is a huge step in securing and protecting the rights of women and girls around the world.

Read more Ms. coverage on global women’s rights here



Anushay Hossain began her feminist career as an intern at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on microfinance for women and girls in her native country, Bangladesh. A University of Virginia graduate, Anushay joined the Feminist Majority Foundation's Nobel Peace Prize nominated Campaign for Afghan Women before completing her MA in Gender and Development at the University of Sussex. She spent a year at the United Nations Development Fund for Women's (UNIFEM UK) London office before returning to Washington, DC where she invests the majority of her work analyzing the impact of US foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls around the world.