Japan Averts Royal Succession Crisis
[Analysis] Princess Kiko delivers first royal male heir in four decades
Princess Kiko, the 39-year-old wife of Emperor Akihito's second son, Prince Akishino, has given birth to the first male heir to the imperial throne in 41 years.
The historic royal birth at Aiiku hospital in Tokyo on Wednesday morning has cheered many Japanese, especially conservatives, who have fiercely opposed moves to change the country's male-only imperial succession law to allow a woman to ascend the ancient Chrysanthemum Throne.
Kiko has also two daughters -- Princess Mako, 14, and Princess Kako, 11.
During the delivery, the princess showed symptoms of partial placenta previa, in which part of the placenta drops too low in the uterus. Doctors opted for a Caesarian section, the first such operation for a member of the imperial family. It was also the first time that an imperial family member had given birth at a hospital other than Imperial Household Hospital.
A team of about 10 medical professionals attended the princess during the operation, with Masao Nakabayashi, the princess' chief physician and head of Aiiku Hospital, performing the Caesarean.
According to the Imperial Household Agency, Princess Kiko delivered the baby, who weighs 2,558 grams and is 48.8 cm tall, at 8:27 a.m. The operation went smoothly, taking less than one hour. Both the mother and baby are in good condition.
Prince Akishino reportedly waited for his new baby to give its first cry in a room near the operation room. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are away in Hokkaido on official duties and are expected to return to Tokyo on Saturday.
The newborn boy is third in line to the throne, after Crown Prince Naruhito, 46, and Prince Akishino, 41 -- the two sons of Emperor Akihito, 72. The emperor's daughter, former Princess Sayako, married an ordinary citizen in November 2005 and relinquished her imperial status. Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, 42, have one daughter, Aiko, 4.
Crown Princess Masako has been largely absent from public view in recent years. She is reportedly suffering from a mental disorder due in part to the stress of royal life and the pressure placed upon her to produce a male heir.
How to ensure the future survival of the imperial family -- and imperial system itself -- has been a hot subject of debate in recent years. A private panel of advisors to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi released a report in November 2005 recommending a break with a male-lineage tradition dating back thousands of years. The report called for a revision of Imperial Household Law to allow females and their descendants to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne. At present, the 1947 law limits imperial heirs to males who have an emperor on their fathers' side.
Koizumi initially supported the proposed changes to the Imperial Household law to enable a woman to assume the throne. In his policy speech in January at the opening of a 150-day regular session of the Diet, Japan's parliament, Koizumi vowed to push through the law changes during the session, which closed in June.
Opinion polls, conducted after the panel report was released showed that a majority of the Japanese public also supported a reigning empress, primarily from the viewpoint of gender equality. But the debate was put on ice suddenly in February when Kiko's pregnancy was announced, raising hopes for a male heir. Under the proposed changes, Kiko's newborn baby would be sixth in line to the throne regardless of its sex.
Akihito is the 125th emperor of Japan. In the history of the imperial family stretching back 2,700 years to the mythical first emperor, Jinmu, there have been eight female emperors, with the last one, Gosakuramachi, reigning from 1762 to 1770. But they were either single or widowed and held the throne only temporarily until a suitable male descendant in the male line was installed. According to Shinto belief, Jinmu is regarded as a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
The panel report recommending the ascendance to the throne of females, particularly one not through the male lineage, drew a barrage of sharp criticism from conservative academics and lawmakers, even within Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who fear that if Princess Aiko marries a commoner and her first child ascends the throne, the imperial line will shift to a "female-line."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe is also known for his negative view on the panel report. Abe, a die-hard conservative, is almost certain to win the Sept. 20 election for LDP president -- a post that guarantees premiership because of the LDP-led coalition's parliamentary majority -- to succeed Koizumi.
With Wednesday's birth of a long-awaited new male heir to the throne, the stalled debate over possible changes to imperial succession rules is likely to fizzle out. But experts say that some changes to the imperial succession rules will still be needed eventually -- if not in the near future -- to ensure long-term stability in succession. There are currently only three male heirs to the throne, including the newborn baby, and ensuring future male heirs is difficult without an imperial concubine system, they say.
The imperial concubine system was abolished by Emperor Akihito's father, Hirohito.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based commentator and scholar on international politics and economy.