September 5, 2006

Japanese princess gives birth to male heir

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Princess Kiko gave birth on
Wednesday to a baby boy -- the first male heir to be born into
the ancient imperial family in more than four decades.

The birth of a boy, third in line to the throne after his
uncle and father, will scuttle a plan to let women ascend the
throne -- an idea opposed by conservatives eager to preserve a
tradition they say stretches back more than 2,000 years.

TV programs flashed the news that a male heir had been
born, although tabloid media had forecast weeks earlier that
the baby was a boy.

Royal fans waving Japanese flags and shouting
"Congratulations" greeted Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko,
as the beaming grandparents left a hotel in Sapporo, northern
Japan, where they are on an official visit.

An Imperial Household Agency official told reporters Kiko
had given birth by a Caesarean operation to the 2,558 gram (5
lb 10 ounce) boy at 8:27 a.m. (2327 GMT).

He said both Kiko, 39, and the baby were doing well.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a conservative expected
to become Japan's new prime minister this month, welcomed the
birth. "It's a refreshing feeling that reminds us of a clear
autumn sky," he told reporters.

Asked about succession law reform, he added: "It is
important for us to discuss it calmly, carefully and firmly."

No imperial boys had been born since Kiko's husband, Prince
Akishino, in 1965, raising the possibility of a succession
crisis. Crown Prince Naruhito, 46, and Crown Princess Masako,
42 have one child, 4-year-old Princess Aiko.


Japanese emperors have not been worshipped as gods since
Akihito's father, Hirohito renounced his divinity after Japan's
defeat in World War Two, and have no political authority.

But the monarchy remains rich with symbolism and ritual.

Near Tokyo's Gakushuin University, where Akishino and Kiko
met as students, a dance troupe raised celebratory carp
streamers while locals toasted the baby with sake rice wine.

"It's happy news. It's resolved the country's succession
problem," said Hideki Ishizuka, 36, working in a flower shop.

Later in the day, the infant was to receive a ceremonial
sword from the emperor. Its name will be selected a week later.

The birth took place at the private Aiiku Hospital, which
has close ties to the royal family and has seen many celebrity

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had planned to revise the
law to let women ascend the throne but Kiko's pregnancy put on
hold that proposal, which would have cleared the way for Aiko
to become Japan's first reigning empress since the 18th

Most Japanese, however, favor giving women and their
children equal rights to inherit the throne.


Experts agree reform of the succession law will be needed
eventually, despite the birth of the boy, since ensuring male
heirs is difficult without a royal concubine.

The practice of emperors taking concubines ended when
Emperor Akihito's late father, Hirohito, refused to take one.

"I think it solves the short-term problem but they still
have got a major issue on their hands," said Kenneth Ruoff, a
professor at Portland State University and author of "The
People's Emperor."

The birth is the latest chapter in a drama that began more
than two years ago when Masako, a Harvard-educated former
diplomat, developed mental illness two years caused by the
stress of rigid royal life, including pressure to bear a son.

Some Masako fans hoped the infant boy's birth would ease
her plight. "This might take the burden off her to have a son
or to raise her daughter to be emperor," said Masae Tone, 76, a
former high school english teacher.

Japan has had eight reigning empresses but conservatives
stress they were stop-gap rulers.

(Additional reporting by George Nishiyama, Chisa Fujioka,
Teruaki Ueno and Edwina Gibbs)