Japan's Princess Kiko may finally provide male heir

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Japan's Imperial Family may have been rescued from a looming succession crisis by divine intervention with the surprise announcement that Princess Kiko is pregnant with her third child.

The news that the daughter-in-law of Emperor Hirohito could be carrying the first male heir since 1965 comes amid a bitter debate about whether a woman should be allowed to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The pregnancy announcement was greeted with relief and applause in the Diet (Japanese parliament) yesterday, although the sex of the child is not yet known. The Diet was gearing up to revise the Imperial Household Law, which allows only male succession. Several prominent members of the ruling party are among 170 politicians who signed a petition opposing a new succession bill - and now are calling for it to be scrapped. "It would be rude to carry on now," said Hakubun Shimomura, one of a group of Diet members against revision. But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the revision would proceed. "We don't know if it is a boy or girl," he said, adding that for the sake of "stability" the country could "no longer put the issue [of succession] off".

The attempt to change the 1947 law was prompted by the failure of the emperor's son, Prince Naruhito, and his wife Princess Masako, who is suffering from depression, to produce a boy. The revision would allow their four-year-old daughter, Aiko, to eventually become Empress.

But the bill is strongly opposed by a growing number of traditional conservatives, who say it would break the bloodline of the world's oldest continuous monarchy, which claims to have begun 600 years before Christ.