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Drought of heirs puts Japan on baby watch

Never mind Y2K preparations or Russia's brutalities in Chechnya or just about anything else. This week most Japanese will want to know just one thing from their media: Is Crown Princess Masako really pregnant?

Japan's imperial family is a subdued, low-profile group, but occasionally its members draw the exhaustive attention that European royals sometimes get. This is one of those times.

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On Friday, in a scoop that will not be forgotten soon, the Asahi newspaper reported that Masako was expecting. Other news organizations - chasing a story that produced banner headlines, posses of camped-out journalists, and two-hour television specials - then quoted sources at the Imperial Household Agency saying that Japan's crown princess would have tests this week to confirm a pregnancy.

Japan is awaiting the results like a nation of eager grandparents. Analysts say that an imperial pregnancy could help lift the economy and Japan's flagging birthrate.

Masako, a Harvard- and Oxford-educated diplomat, renounced her nascent career and married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, generating expectations that she would modernize Japan's tradition-steeped imperial family.

Since then she has frustrated liberals, who say she has done too little to promote the cause of equality for Japanese women, and conservatives, who have faulted her for not bearing a child during six years of marriage.

The pressure is especially high because Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne - the world's oldest hereditary monarchy - is passed down through the male line. The youngest eligible heir is Prince Akishino, Naruhito's younger brother, who was born in 1965. Supporters of the emperor have been waiting for decades to welcome another boy into the family.

All of which means that should Masako prove to be pregnant, the pressure won't go away; it will just change. "I just wish that everyone would be quiet about it," says Masami Ohinata, a women's studies professor in Tokyo. "And if someone says, 'Oh, we need a male,' I will just feel really sorry for [Masako] ... We are heading for the 21st century, and we have to congratulate her whether it's a boy or a girl."

Unfortunately, an institution that legend says came into being around 660 BC does not respond easily to modern-day imperatives. The media are already speculating about the sex of a child, despite the conditional nature of last week's news.

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But the long drought of imperial heirs has done more than create high expectations of Masako; it has also initiated a mild but remarkable debate over the suitability of women on the throne. The government just this year toughened Japan's Equal Employment Opportunity Law, and in some spheres of society Japanese women have achieved equality with men. If there are no eligible men for the Chrysanthemum Throne, some Japanese ask, why not a woman?

Indeed, eight women have occupied the position during the line's history, although they have generally served as place-holders for male heirs.

One problem, explains Yoshihasa Saito, an author and journalist who writes frequently about the imperial institution, is that Japan's emperor is most importantly a leader of sacred rituals.

Up until the United States helped rewrite Japan's Constitution after World War II, the emperor was considered a divine figure as well as the nominal ruler of Japan.

Now the charter calls him a "symbol," but he remains a sort of national high priest, carrying out rituals of Japan's indigenous Shinto tradition. "He is the purest person in the nation," says Mr. Saito, voicing the concern of traditionalists that a female emperor would be unable to carry out the sacred aspects of the job description.

Were a female emperor to marry, he says, she would have to remove her name from the imperial family register and change her name - all of which would add up to impurity.

More secular-minded Japanese point out that the female members of the imperial family, such as Empress Michiko and especially Masako herself, have been the most popular in opinion surveys.

Like royal families elsewhere, Japan's imperial family is struggling to maintain its relevance to the people while preserving the dignity of the institution. Proponents of putting a woman on the throne say that step would likely increase public interest.

But they face strong opposition from traditionalists who are unconcerned with opinion surveys and who observe that Michiko and Masako - both commoners who are part of the family by marriage - would never be eligible.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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