The girl who may sit on Chrysanthemum throne

After months of controversy over who should be heir to the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, Japan may be finally nearing a decision on whether to allow a female emperor to sit on the Chrysanthemum throne.

After months of controversy over who should be heir to the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, Japan may be finally nearing a decision on whether to allow a female emperor to sit on the Chrysanthemum throne.

A Japanese news agency reported yesterday that a panel of experts set up last month by the government to debate female succession has determined that three-year-old Princess Aiko will be next in line to her father, Prince Naruhito.

The government's chief cabinet secretary, Hiroyuki Hosoda, immediately tried to quash press speculation about a future empress, saying that the experts, who are reporting directly to the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, had "only just begun discussing" the issue.

But many believe that with the survival of the supposedly 2,600-year-old patriarchal institution at stake, the panel has little room for manoeuvre despite opposition from conservatives.

The Imperial family has not produced a baby boy since 1965 and shows little sign of doing so, forcing most observers to face the inevitable: a recent survey found that 87 per cent of the Japanese public support the idea of an empress.

Even the conservative Prime Minister has thrown his weight behind the progressives, recently stating: "In this day and age, I'm sure that the nation would welcome a female emperor."

Some pundits have speculated that Mr Koizumi has deliberately excluded right-wing traditionalists from the panel, making it what the right-leaning Sankei newspaper calls, "a rubber-stamp for the government's foregone conclusion that female emperors should be permitted".

The current crisis was sparked last year by Aiko's mother, Princess Masako, who is widely believed to have buckled under the pressure of trying to produce a male heir after she disappeared from public sight for months with what was subsequently diagnosed as a "stress-related disorder".

The head of the Imperial Household Agency, Toshio Yuasa, had earlier stated publicly that he wanted the princess to have another child, even though she had endured seven years of intense media speculation, and a miscarriage, to have her first.

Although a total of eight empresses have temporarily warmed the Chrysanthemum throne over the centuries, none has gone on to give birth to a child that later succeeded her, meaning the panel is debating what traditionalists believe is a hereditary tradition dating back to before a pope sat in Rome.

Until recently, a steady stream of concubines kept the Imperial household supplied with male babies: Emperor Meiji, who ruled over Japan's transition to a modern industrial economy until 1912, had 15 offspring with five concubines, one of whom succeeded him.

But the tradition of concubines was abolished after the Second World War, so the burden has fallen on current Emperor Akihito's small family.

Opposition to a female emperor is strongest among followers of Shinto, which was the official state religion in wartime Japan and which revered the Emperor as a god.

Although a far less potent force today, Shinto groups still run thousands of shrines around the country and are an important source of votes in the conservative countryside for Mr Koizumi's party, the ruling Liberal Democrats.

The panel's final recommendation is not expected until later this year - but with interest so intense it will be a miracle if its conclusions don't leak before then. Most expect the eventual result to be Empress Aiko, but some have more radical solutions to the problem.

A letter to the Japan Times last week said: "Let the monarchy come to a quiet end. As a result, the annoying Imperial Household Agency will be disbanded, Tokyo's parkland will be vastly increased and taxes can be cut. It would seem to be a no-brainer."

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