It's a Girl! And Perhaps a Queen...

When Japanese Princess Toshinomiya Aiko was born to Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako on Dec. 1, the news was a welcome respite to a country that has lately only known economic hardship. Readers of the Yomiuri Shimbun (Dec. 29) cited the birth of the baby girl as the year’s most memorable event in Japan. In an editorial titled “Sparks of hope in a dark year,” the newspaper wrote, “This year has made us sense that our country is in a critical phase in many respects, forcing us to do some serious soul-searching....The birth of a new life brings joy, and we know the public sincerely wishes the new princess health and peace.”

But the much-anticipated birth also sparked a debate over whether or not the newborn should be second in line after her father to the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy. Since 1889, when the Imperial Family Law was passed, only male heirs have been permitted on the throne.

The idea to change the chauvinistic clause has no shortage of supporters. Japanese President Junichiro Koizumi, as well as other ruling and opposition politicians, agreed that a legal revision may be in order, but have urged caution in progressing too hastily. The Japanese public too has supported the idea of a female heir. According to a Mainichi Shimbun survey, a “whopping 86 percent of those polled” believed the Imperial House Law should be amended to allow females to ascend the throne. Not surprisingly, support for an heiress was highest among those in their 20s, with 91 percent approving the change.

But the voice that may have the most weight is that of 90-year-old Princess Takamatsunomiya Hikikuko, who is the oldest member of the Imperial family. In the Jan. 22 issue of Fujin Koron, a women’s opinion magazine, she expressed her support for a change of the imperial succession laws.

“In the past, female members of the Imperial family have held the role of emperor,” she wrote. “If we thus take a lesson from the long history of the Japanese, [we will see that] a female emperor is not by any means an unnatural occurrence. This is my very humble opinion.” Princess Takamatsu pointed to England’s past and present queens, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, and Victoria, as examples of monarchies outside Japan in which female leaders have flourished, bringing prosperity to their country and people.

Across Asia, commentators also called for change, urging the Japanese government to take the bull by the horns. Kwan Weng Kin wrote in The Straits Times (Jan. 8), “[H]ow much longer can Japan afford to wait before tackling the inevitable succession issue? Crown Princess Masako turns 39 this year, casting doubts as to how many more children she can bear in the future.”