TOKYO—After years of national hand-wringing over the lack of a male heir for the imperial family, Japan appears on the cusp of allowing women to ascend to the throne, drawing a spotlight on a 3-year-old princess named Aiko.
In a little-noticed decision, a 10-member advisory panel to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi signaled this week that it would urge revising a 1947 Imperial House Law to change succession rules for the world's oldest continuous hereditary monarchy.
The pending decision is the result of a hard collision between imperial tradition and the realities of a lack of a male imperial family heir.
Since 1965, the imperial family has produced nine princesses but not a single male heir, much to the chagrin of traditionalist supporters of the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Emperor Akihito's eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his wife, Masako, have only a daughter, Aiko, and the clock is ticking if she is to begin the rigorous training behind the high walls of the imperial palace to assume the throne. Before the law was changed, eight women had ascended to the imperial throne.
Pressure on Masako, a 41-year-old Harvard- and Oxford-trained former diplomat, to produce a male heir reached such shattering levels in late 2003 that she had a nervous breakdown and went into virtual seclusion.
The chairman of the advisory panel, Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, a former president of Tokyo University, left no doubt at a news conference this week that his panel's recommendation, due in late November, would be to change the law and once again accept female heirs.
"In order to maintain a stable succession of the imperial family system, the only way to proceed is to allow females to ascend to the throne," Yoshikawa said.
Even if current members of the royal family produce a male heir, the imperial family would remain in peril of failing to produce male heirs in the future, Yoshikawa said.
Koizumi has encouraged altering the Imperial House Law since he first came to office in 2001. Since his landslide victory in Sept. 11 elections, his ruling coalition can override any opposition in both houses of Parliament. Koizumi has said he'll submit the revised law to Parliament at its next ordinary session in January.
The Japanese public widely supports allowing women to ascend the throne.
A poll by the Japan Association for Public Opinion Research conducted this month showed that about 84 percent of Japanese supported such a change.
After World War II, Japan's emperor was stripped of his status as a deity, and a revised 1947 Imperial House Law forbade him from having concubines, cutting down sharply on offspring.
Yoshikawa said the advisory panel discussed bringing back parts of the imperial family who were stripped of royal status in 1947, but "we concluded that it is impossible to do so."
The revision of the imperial law aims to make it possible for either males or females in the imperial bloodline to ascend to the throne.
Japan's current emperor is the 125th monarch in the official chronology, which dates to the crowning of the first emperor in 660 B.C.
Yoshikawa said the advisory panel would keep discussing succession details, such as whether the first child regardless of gender should be tapped as heir or whether a son might prevail over an older sister.
News of the pending change comes amid bustle in the run-up to the Nov. 15 wedding of Princess Sayako, the first daughter of Emperor Akihito, to Yoshiki Kuroda, a commoner who works for the Tokyo city government office as an urban planner.
Under current legislation, Sayako loses her imperial status by marrying outside the royal family and any son wouldn't be eligible for the throne.
In a break with custom, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will attend the wedding, defying a tradition to ignore a marriage when a daughter marries a commoner.
As a wedding gift, Princess Sayako and Kuroda will get $1.3 million in tax-free public money, but won't have access to a number of other imperial perks.
Sayako is 36, and her husband-to-be is 40. Late marriages are common in Japan, a nation of 127 million people that's aging, experiencing a low birthrate and on the threshold of population decline. The 2000 census showed that nearly 50 percent of men and 27 percent of women don't marry until age 35.
Sayako is a favorite of Empress Michiko, who on her 71st birthday Oct. 20 offered this recollection: "Sayako was a child who would first come over to me serenely and say, `Don't mind,' whenever I was disappointed about a mistake I made or about something that happened unexpectedly." The empress continued, "When His Majesty talks about Sayako, `What happened to our Miss Don't Mind?' how fondly we will remember and miss our heartwarming `Don't mind' in the days to come."
Even if the imperial law is amended, some difficult realities remain. One is that few outsiders seem to want to marry into the royal family and its stultifying imperial household. In Japan's chauvinistic society, it may be particularly difficult for a female heir, such as little Princess Aiko, to find a husband eventually.
"Who wants to marry the princess and become a member of the imperial family when there are so many restrictions and glare from the media?" said Naoki Inose, the author of a book about the emperor.
(Doi is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-IMPERIAL
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Princess Aiko
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