Is she or isn't she? Japan stays baffled

A report that Crown Princess Masako is at last pregnant has been followed by a mysterious silence, writes Richard Lloyd Parry

JAPANESE newspapers, less inclined to rock the boat than their Western counterparts, seldom boast exclusives, but the Asahi Shimbun's special edition on the Friday before last looked like the scoop of 1999.

Princess Masako, wife of Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, was pregnant after six years of marriage. The breakfast news bulletins were full of it, and by the time the evening editions recycled the story it had been through the mill of the daytime chat shows too. But the weekend passed with nothing new to report, and by Monday, the media were getting edgy.

Cameramen in helicopters strained for a glimpse of the couple as they travelled to the hospital, and floor plans were displayed showing the route they would take to the examining room. Finally, Kiyoshi Furukawa, Grand Master of the Crown Prince's Household, appeared. After sternly calling for journalists to respect "the human rights" of the couple, he made his announcement, the worst news of all in such a situation. "At present," he said, "we are not at a stage where we can announce whether or not the Crown Princess is pregnant."

Japan's Imperial "millennium baby" had disappeared before our eyes, and nobody understands why. The story, based on leaks from unnamed officials in the Imperial Palace, seems to have been accurate - after six years of marriage, 36-year-old Princess Masako appeared to have good news. A urine test had indicated that she was expecting - even Mr Furukawa admitted "other medical symptoms which indicate she may be pregnant".

Last Monday she had ultrasound tests, which for a woman five weeks pregnant should have provided confirmation. Why, then, the reluctance to make an announcement one way or the other?

The Tokyo rumour machine has not been slow in supplying theories, for there is a lot at stake, and not just for the Japanese media. All royal brides are under pressure to produce heirs, but Princess Masako, a former diplomat, educated at Harvard and Oxford, has suffered more than most. For a start, she has married into a family with an acute shortage of men: the Crown Prince's younger brother is the youngest male in the family, and he is 34.

Under current succession laws, and despite several historical Empresses, women cannot succeed to the throne. Every year, the Crown Prince gives a press conference on his birthday, and every year the issue is raised. "I am afraid too much disturbance could upset the stork's mood," he said in 1994. This year, he was earnest. "I fully recognise people's interest in this, and the importance of the matter," he said.

One theory has it that the Imperial Household Agency, which controls every aspect of the Imperial lives, is simply trying to cool things down with the intention of confirming the pregnancy when the Crown Princess has passed the vulnerable eight-week stage. In the traditional Buddhist calendar Monday was an inauspicious day, inappropriate for big announcements. But wilder rumours, retailed in private by Japanese journalists last week, concern the possibility that something has gone wrong - a miscarriage, perhaps, or even a birth defect, possibly as a side-effect of fertility treatment.

Another line of thinking has it that the story originated in the office of Japan's Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, who leaked it to provide some relief from bad news about Japan's struggling economy. On being asked about the story, he urged his people to "wait quietly", but admitted that "if [it] is true, it is a cause for celebration". The agency, it is speculated, is furious, and is allowing him and his friends at the Asahi to stew for a while.

Palace officials have promised further "appropriate tests at an appropriate time". The reporters have gone from in front of the palace, the TV choppers are back at their helipads. Whatever is really going on, the subject has dropped abruptly out of the news, which may turn out to be no bad thing. As Princess Masako's mother told doorstepping journalists: "I have heard nothing myself, but it if it turns out not to be true I will feel very sorry for my daughter."

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