Japan may delay submitting a bill that would allow women to ascend the imperial throne on the news that Princess Kiko, the wife of the current Emperor's second son, Fumihito, is six weeks pregnant.
The Chrysanthemum Throne is currently undergoing something of a succession crisis due to a dearth of male heirs, and the bill to allow women and their progeny to take the throne has widely been seen as a matter of necessity to stabilize the line. But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi backed off his earlier firm stance on the issue and called Wednesday for caution and consensus on the matter, in a move widely seen as a prelude to temporarily shelving the bill.
If Princess Kiko's baby is a boy, it would be the first male born into the royal family for 41 years, and third in line for the throne under current law which allows only men to rule. The looming possibility of a radical change to the Imperial succession system has prompted conservative politicians to call for alternate solutions over recent months, and the announcement of the pregnancy has given a fillip to their cause.
Last week, 173 lawmakers, including almost a third of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, signed a petition against hasty revision of the Imperial House Law. Traditionalists believe that the male line stretches back more than 2,000 years to the legendary first emperor, and that the ancient heritage must be preserved.
Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, an elderly cousin of the emperor and sixth in line for the throne, broke the silence of the royal family last year by suggesting that the practice of using concubines be revived. While he got few supporters for the idea, a poll released just before the pregnancy announcement showed that public support is starting to waver on female rulers.
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun survey showed that 63 percent now favor allowing women on the throne, compared with support last year of more than 90 percent in some polls. Conservative groups are planning major rallies on the issue for March.
Although the momentum for reform appears to have slowed, analysts say the pregnancy ought not to affect the overall issue, as the succession question won't be stabilized over the long term even if Princess Kiko's baby is a boy.
Sumiko Iwao, a professor of communications at the Musashi Institute of Technology in Yokohama and one of 10 members of the Advisory Council on the Imperial House Law that assists Mr. Koizumi in the matter, says the law needs changing.
"If the law remains unchanged and Princess Kiko's baby is a boy, that would leave only one branch of the current family [viable to carry on the line], as all the female members will leave the Imperial family under the current law," she says.
Crown Prince Naruhito is next in line to ascend the throne. But with 4-year-old Princess Aiko as his only offspring, the line will then be passed to his brother, Fumihito. Even if Fumihito has a son in September, it would hardly create a stable system for succession, as by the time he took the throne all other male members of the family would probably be dead, making all future heirs dependent on a single male.
Prince Fumihito and Kiko married in 1990 and have two girls, 15-year-old Princess Mako and 11-year-old Princess Kako. Conservatives in court circles have long urged both men to have more children. Some royal watchers have suggested that the timing of the pregnancy and its early announcement shows that the royal family may prefer to keep succession rules unchanged. Previous royal pregnancies have been announced around the two-month stage.
Ms. Iwao, however, disagrees. "The Imperial House knows more than anybody else that the law must be changed regardless of Kiko's pregnancy," she says.