Feature: Bringing up baby
"This results from the growing sense of gender equality in Japan, as the political influence of the female population undoubtedly [is] greater than it has ever been." says Japanese history expert Hane.

The birth of Princess Aiko on December 1 put a smile on the faces of Japan's downcast citizens, but will the newest member of the imperial family ultimately impact political and cultural spheres? Matt Wilce reports.

As news of modern Japan's most-anticipated imperial birth spread through the nation on the afternoon of December 1, a wave of joy washed over downcast economic news to brighten the streets, television screens and front pages of Tokyo. "Bright news at last," announced an editorial by Mainichi Shimbun. Emerging before the nation seven days later, 3.1kg Princess Aiko showed little comprehension of the significance of her birth. But in a nation known more for its slumping stock market than its imperial past, the sleeping baby represented a renewed hope not only for the future of the Chrysanthemum Throne but the populace as a whole.
Already the subject of much speculation before her birth, the imperial baby has been lauded as a stimulant of Japan's decrepit birthrate and the equally feeble economy—some have even suggested that Aiko's birth will result in a billion-dollar boom in consumer spending. "In an instant, the symbolic value of the monarchy—sometimes doubted or forgotten—becomes clear again. For a brief, shining moment, people will set aside anxieties about terrorism, war and recession to contemplate simpler, happier things," said The Japan Times in its December 2 editorial pages.
While the news failed to lift the Nikkei stock average, bookstores and department stores rushed to set up commemorative displays and sales campaigns. The excitement also translated into a roaring trade in train tickets from the station that shares the baby's name and pregnant dolls with mail-in coupons that can be exchanged for a baby, along with a device to deflate their stomachs.
From the 3,500 people who lined the streets to cheer the newest addition to the imperial family to the flags that sprung up across town, it quickly became clear that Aiko's birth was among the best news the country has had in a century. And despite the succession debate that her birth has renewed, it's impossible to underestimate the value of good news in the current climate.

In the name of love
Written with the characters "love child," the name bestowed on the newborn by her grandfather, Emperor Akihito, is not without a touch of irony. Crown Prince Naruhito, now 41, courted his future bride for a considerable time before she agreed to forgo her burgeoning diplomatic career to become a princess. Eight years later, their first child is a product of their perseverance in the face of criticism and the indiscriminate hands of fate.
Masako Owada, now 37 and daughter of a career diplomat who served as Japan's permanent representative to the United Nations, grew up in Moscow and New York before entering Harvard University to study economics. The multilingual Masako—fluent in English, French, German and Japanese—graduated magna cum laude and went on to follow her father into the foreign ministry. Universally hailed as a vibrant and highly respected career woman, Masako was seen as an injection of modern sensibility into the staid imperial palace.
"I recall when Princess Masako married Prince Naruhito, many Japanese women believed that she would champion women's rights, but she virtually disappeared from the public scene," notes Mikiso Hane, author of Eastern Phoenix: The History of Japan Since World War II, who attributes Masako's reticence to the conservative influence of the Imperial Household Agency.
Naruhito and Masako quickly left behind the paparazzi of their early courtship and the pomp and glitz of their royal wedding, and eight years into their marriage they appeared dogged by bad luck, depression and boredom, as the pressure to produce a child, let alone a male heir, mounted. In December 1999, Princess Masako's miscarriage threw the imperial household into further gloom.
When Masako's second pregnancy was finally announced May 15 last year, the widespread jubilation was accompanied by the kind of rumors not seen in print, even in the West. The baby's birth has again renewed hopes among Japanese women and liberals alike. Moreover, being a girl likely means Aiko will be loved in a way a male heir would not. While Naruhito, his brother and sister were raised by their parents, Emperor Akihito was taken away at the age of three and spent most of his childhood in his own separate household with wet nurses, valets, chamberlains and tutors, paying his parents weekend visits.
But the emperor maintained an unconventional streak, marrying Michiko Shoda, the first commoner to marry into the imperial family, after they met on the tennis court. Class valedictorian at Sacred Heart Women's University and co-author of several poetry collections, Michiko broke with tradition to raise her three children together with her husband.
Aiko's name has also struck a chord with the public, bucking the trend against names ending in the diminutive suffix Ðko and potentially setting off a new naming fad. When Michiko married the emperor in 1959, a slew of baby girls were named after her. The next year the birth of Crown Prince Naruhito, whose royal name is Hironomiya, filled the top ten list of boys' names beginning with Hiro-. Products bearing the new princess' name are also engulfed in a sudden boom. Aiko brand shochu, produced on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima, is flying off the shelves. In Sendai the sleepy little station of Ayashi has gone from selling two platform tickets a day to moving 6,500 in a single day. The reason? Its name is written with the same characters as Aiko.

End of the line?
For all the excitement and celebration that has come with Aiko's arrival, a potentially contentious debate has also dominated the headlines. Had a male been born, he would have been second in line for the throne. But present law does not allow a woman to ascend the throne.
Until recently there was no historical precedent ruling out female rule. Japan's first leader, Princess Himiko, oversaw the spread of culture during the Yamato period (AD 300-550), and in total ten empresses have sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne. The most recent was Gosakuramachi, who ruled from 1762-1770 before abdicating in favor of her nephew. There is no doubt that the male line takes precedence when it comes to accession, and both Gosakuramachi and her predecessor Meisho (1629-43) abdicated so that male relatives reaching maturity could take the crown.
This patrilineal policy dates back to the Meiji Constitution and the Imperial House Law of 1889 that states, "The empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of emperors unbroken for ages eternal." The present Imperial House Law of 1947, compiled as an adjunct to the hastily cobbled together postwar Constitution, also precludes an empress and the line of succession remains unchanged by Aiko's birth—Crown Prince Naruhito followed by his brother Prince Akishino and Prince Hitachi.
Hiroshi Takahashi, co-author of Koi Keisho ("The Imperial Succession") told Japan Echo the minister in charge of constitutional issues at the time "believed the Japanese people had a natural understanding that the imperial line had come down through male succession and that the few empresses who had reigned were exceptions, meant to bridge gaps in the male lineage and step down when their part was completed."
Things are therefore not looking good for the future of the Chrysanthemum Throne, as both Naruhito and Akishino have only daughters, Hitachi is childless, and there has not been a male birth in the family since 1965. In the past it was possible for an illegitimate son born to a concubine to be named heir—both the Meiji and Taisho emperors were conceived this way. But the present law precludes illegitimate children assuming the throne, cutting off an often-used escape clause.
One week after Aiko's birth, Japanese weekly Shukan Bunshu bravely ran a story titled "The Three Taboos," referring to subjects the Imperial Household Agency wishes to ignore or quash—something they are very successful at. In the story one insider source was quoted as saying, "We are not considering the possibility of having an empress."
The end of the line may be in sight, though. A revision of the rules regarding succession would not necessarily be opposed. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters when the pregnancy was first announced that, "I personally think an empress would be fine, but I want the LDP to study fully because this is a big issue." But he and many other political figures see the debate as premature and are holding out for a male heir from the imperial couple.
Public sentiment, however, appears to favor an empress. A Mainichi poll conducted the week after Aiko's birth showed 86 percent of respondents said it was time to amend the law governing succession. Calls for amendment were highest among men, at 89 percent, compared to 83 percent of women.
"This results from the growing sense of gender equality in Japan, as the political influence of the female population undoubtedly [is] greater than it has ever been," says Japanese history expert Hane. "I'm sure the younger generation would favor the revision but it depends on how liberal-minded the majority of the Diet members are."
On top of being new parents, the Crown Prince and Princess have the future of the 2,700 year-old Chrysanthemum Throne weighing heavy on their shoulders. But baby Aiko is certainly producing a royal rush, reviving the fading popularity of her parents and uniting a nation starved of good news. The country and crown have received yet another boost from a charismatic female.

Photos: Reuters



Imperial Trivia:
The current Emperor's private English tutor, Elizabeth Vining, used to call him Jimmy.

Empress Michiko's father owned the Nisshin Flour Milling Company, the largest manufacturer of cup noodles in the world.

Emperor Hirohito was buried with the Mickey Mouse watch he bought at Disneyland on a visit to California.

A lifelong Disney fan Hiorhito named his horse Snow White—the Imperial Household office reported the name as White Snow to preserve his image.

The Imperial Family always ride in maroon cars.

There have been ten Empresses since the Imperial Family assumed power.

Crown Prince Naruhito was the first royal to be educated overseas. He attended Oxford University.

Emperor Akihito represented Japan at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Emperor Hirohito's mourning ceremony cost $74 million.