Japanese Monarchy In a Bind

MONARCHIES, an endangered species, have different ways of ensuring their destruction. The House of Windsor seems bent on driving Britain toward republicanism by scandal and ridicule. In Japan, the imperial family is headed toward trouble for lack of a male heir.

Almost three years after Crown Prince Naruhito's long-awaited marriage to Harvard- and Oxford-educated Masako Owada, the couple still has no children, let alone a boy.

The imperial family has not produced a male offspring since the birth of Naruhito's younger brother, Prince Akishinonomiya, 30 years ago (the prince has three daughters). Since Imperial Household Law states that only a man can accede to the throne, the omission augers the end of the 2,700-year-old hereditary line, unless the law is changed.

At a press conference in February, Naruhito hinted that stress is to blame. ''The stork seems to be fond of a quiet environment,'' he said employing the same euphemistic terms he had at the engagement press conference when he responded to a question about the number of children the couple planned to have by saying, ''As many as the stork brings.''

Many average Japanese seem indifferent to the lives and fortunes of their low-profile royals. Indeed, the topic has achieved less media coverage than the demise of that other symbol of Japan, the crested ibis, destined to extinction after the death last year of the last male bird.

The search for a solution may be quietly under way. Two weeks ago, one of Japan's senior courtier-bureaucrats visited Denmark. Denmark's crown reverted to a woman after 600 years with the accession of Queen Margrethe II in 1972 after a referendum changed the law.

The idea of an empress as sovereign is not new to Japan. Although succession has been through the male line, even before it was specified in the Meiji Constitution of 1889, there have been 10 ruling empresses among Japan's 111 monarchs since the 5th century AD.

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