September 2, 2006

Japan awaits birth of possible imperial male heir

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - Conservatives keen to keep women from
ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne are hoping this week will
bring the answer to their prayers: the birth of Japan's first
imperial male heir in more than four decades.

Princess Kiko, the 39-year-old wife of Emperor Akihito's
second son, is scheduled to give birth by a Caesarean operation
on Wednesday following pregnancy complications.

The birth of a boy would almost certainly derail debate on
revising Japan's males-only imperial succession law to let
women take the throne.

"Before Kiko's pregnancy there was momentum toward change,
but if a boy is born, enthusiasm will diminish," said Miiko
Kodama, a professor at Musashi University in Tokyo.

Japanese tabloid media, never reluctant to probe celebrity
secrets, have already decided that the royal baby is a boy.

In an article titled "Countdown to Princess Kiko's
Childbirth," the weekly Shukan Bunshun wrote last week that
Kiko's husband, Prince Akishino, had told a friend their third
child would be a boy. But the magazine added nothing was

The Imperial Household Agency has declined to comment on
baby's gender, saying Kiko and Akishino, 41, who have two
daughters aged 14 and 11, did not want to be told ahead of

No boys have been born into Japan's imperial family since
Akishino in 1965, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had
planned to enact legislation to give women equal rights to
inherit the throne to avert a succession crisis.

The change would have put 4-year-old Princess Aiko, the
only child of Crown Prince Naruhito, 46, and Crown Princess
Masako, 42, next in line to the throne after Naruhito.

Kiko's pregnancy prompted the government to shelve the
plan, which was opposed by conservatives eager to maintain a
males-only tradition they say stretches back more than 2,000

Among those is Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, widely
tipped to succeed Koizumi later this month.


Public opinion polls conducted shortly after Kiko's
pregnancy was announced in February showed a majority of
Japanese favored letting women ascend the throne, but that
slightly more than half were opposed to a quick revision of the
succession law.

Some say they hope the royal baby will be a girl to give
fresh momentum to reform. "I want a woman to take the throne,
so it would be nice if it's a girl," said Shimpei Kodama, a
young male employee at an insurance company.

Others like Tamio Honda, a 44-year-old IT company
executive, prefer a boy. "I think it would make the Japanese
people happy," Honda said.

Under existing law, a son born to Kiko would be third in
line to the throne after Naruhito and Akishino.

Some sympathizers of Masako, a Harvard-educated former
diplomat who has been suffering from a mental illness caused by
the stress of adapting to rigid royal life -- including
pressure to bear a male heir -- think she'd be happier if a boy
is born.

"I think a boy would be better," said Machiko Kodaira, 58,
who was baby sitting two children at a Tokyo playground. "I
think that would take the burden off Masako," said Kodaira,
adding she nonetheless favored changing the law to let women

Experts on the monarchy agree reform would still be needed
eventually even if a boy is born, since ensuring future male
heirs is difficult without a royal concubine system.

The practice of royal concubines was ended by Emperor
Akihito's father, Hirohito.

Traditionalists hope Abe's election as prime minister will
open the way for the sort of revisions they favor, such as
reviving princely houses abolished after World War Two to
expand the pool of possible male heirs.

"There is no need to rush to revise the law, but this will
still be an issue for the new government," said conservative
commentator Hideaki Kase.

Japan has had eight reigning empresses, the last in the
18th century, but conservatives stress they were stop-gap
rulers who did not pass on the throne to children who were not
descended from the imperial patrilineal line.

(Additional reporting by Chikako Endo)