Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Prince is Born

All Japan rejoiced in the birth of a baby boy to Princess Kiko and her husband, Prince Akishino this week. A smaller but influential segment of Japanese society rejoiced that Japan has been spared the ignominy of having a woman on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The birth of a new prince, the first male born into the imperial family in 41 years, seems to assure male succession to the throne through the third generation, thus postponing any debate on allowing female succession far into the future.

That will please conservatives who had been scandalized at any changes in the country's male-only succession law. The child was delivered by a Caesarian section - a first for the Japanese imperial family - and the birth was attended by no fewer than 10 medical professionals. Although the sex of the baby was almost certainly known to the family and senior officials of the government, it was not publicized in advance.

Japan’s succession problem has often been called a “crisis,” but that is something of a misnomer. If Crown Prince Naruhito lives as long as his grandfather, the Showa Emperor (Hirohito), the “crisis” would not occur until around the year 2050.

With the birth of another male, and assuming he has an equally long life, the “crisis” is averted until practically the turn of the next century. Nonetheless, Japanese had become anxious about viability of the imperial family, which traces its roots in an unbroken line back to the mythic origins of the nation.

The crown prince and his popular consort, Crown Princess Masako, gave birth to a daughter, Aiko, in 2001. But Masako is 42 and has had difficulty conceiving before. Although it is difficult to penetrate behind the walls of secrecy that envelope the Japanese imperial family, one can easily speculate that pressure was brought to bear on Princess Kiko to have another child. After all, the princess, now 40, last gave birth 11 years ago.

Japan's succession crisis arises because the Imperial Household Law mandates that "the Imperial Throne of Japan shall be succeeded by male descendants in the male line of Imperial Ancestors." The law was passed during the years of the American Occupation, which is strange, since elsewhere, as in the constitution, the Americans mandated equality of the sexes.

The Americans also complicated the succession by abolishing the aristocracy, which is why all of the males in the family, from Emperor Akihito on down, have married commoners. It works for men, but not for women. When Princess Sayako married a Tokyo civil servant last October, she left the imperial family and became a commoner. Any child she and her husband had could not succeed to the throne, since it would be tantamount to forming a new dynasty.

How to ensure the future survival of the imperial family -- and imperial system itself - has therefore been a hot subject of debate in recent years. A private panel of advisors to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi released a report last November recommending a break with a male-lineage tradition by allowing females and their descendants to ascend the throne. .

Although Koizumi, a conservative known for his frequent official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, did support changes to the male-only succession, his presumed successor, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, is known to have opposed the panel's recommendations. After Kiko gave birth of a boy, Abe told reporters that the government should discuss the idea of revising the Imperial House Law to pave the way for female monarchs ''in a careful manner'', a politic way of saying "forget it".

As to how the imperial men would get around the biological barriers, conservatives had little to suggest other than to revive concubinage. That would have been anathema to the crown prince, whose marriage to Masako Owada was clearly a love match and celebrated as such by a wide section of the Japanese public. Indeed, his grandfather had resisted taking a concubine after he and his empress gave birth to a worrying succession of daughters until the birth of Akihito, the current emperor.

When suddenly in February Princess Kiko's pregnancy was announced, and the prospect of a male heir suddenly seemed realistic again, the proposal to change the succession law was withdrawn with the speed of summer lightening and all debate on the succession ceased, no doubt to be kicked to another generation, or two.


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