Waiting for a baby who may be king

Japan is going gaga - special rice cakes and candies are all the rage as baby mania sets in.

Japan is filled with a sense of celebration and anticipation. Yet it isn't the holidays lightening up the gloom of a persistent economic slump and war jitters, but the expectation of the child who might some day sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

After eight years of marriage, Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako are expecting their baby any day now. The shopping street called Princess Road, near Princess Masako's parents' home, is festooned with lanterns and red posters with congratulatory wishes. The shops are already celebrating. A lunch-box store is selling a lunch called "stork lunch box," and the bakeries are selling chocolate cupcake gift boxes called "gift of the stork." The Imperial Household Agency has plans to hold a parade and the country's Cultural Agency finished preparing a ritual sword that it plans to give the baby. Department stores are giving out red and white rice cakes to celebrate the new baby's arrival.

The babymania brings the sheltered, rarely seen imperial family to the center of the attention again - and raises questions of whether Japan should consider an egalitarian imperial future.

If a baby boy is born, he will be the second in line for the Chrysanthemum Throne. But if a female is born, under the current law, which was established in 1889 with the Meiji Constitution and was restated in the Imperial Household Law in 1947, she cannot be the successor of the throne.

"There were empresses in early times, so I think changing the law will be a good idea," says Setsuko Suzuki, a printing-related business owner.

In the interest of public opinion, "they will grant the right to inherit the throne to women as well," says Toshiaki Kawahara, an imperial house expert.

An opinion poll conducted by Jiji Press early this month showed that 55.2 percent surveyed favored the idea of allowing a woman to sit on Japan's throne, while only 7.8 percent opposed it. But a quarter of respondents remained undecided.

Expectations here are soaring that the new baby will add bounce to Japan's step. "The unemployment rate is at its highest at ... 5.3 percent. This birth is something that the people were anticipating for a long time, and I believe that this will brighten up the gloomy atmosphere," says Shigeru Matsushita, director and a chief economist of Sanwa Research Institute and Consulting Corp.

Royal babies, after all, have lifted spirits - and yen - before. When Prince Naruhito was born in 1960, the economy grew by 4 percent. "Since it is the birth of a new child, there will be some movement in stocks of baby goods and baby-food companies. However, [a] great economic effect cannot be expected," says Mr. Matushita.

Still, hopes for a baby dividend are high. Akiyoshi Takumori, a chief economist of Sakura Investment Management Co., hopes that the birth of the royal baby could lead grandparents to spend money on their grandchildren. Older people hold a very significant portion of Japanese savings, he says.

Midori Watanabe, a professor of Bunka Women's University and an imperial family critic, says the birth will have positive social effects on Japan: "Throughout time, the imperial family has been a symbol of a happy family. Therefore, I believe that they will build a warm family, which will be a model for the people."

There is also a hope that the new family will represent the new Japanese family, raised by parents who are partners. After all, the baby's mother, Princess Masako, studied at Harvard University and the University of Tokyo, and was a career diplomat. The father, Prince Naruhito, is seen as a man who will be an affectionate and involved dad.

"For someone like Princess Masako to join the imperial family is significant," says Ms. Watanabe. "Therefore, I think that her ways of raising a child will be the model."

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