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Japan's Princess Masako pregnant

Prince and Princess waving hands
Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako (L)  

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Female 'emperor'

Royal marriage

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TOKYO, Japan -- After nearly eight years of marriage, Japan's Princess Masako is pregnant with a possible heir to Japan's Chrysanthemum Throne, the world's oldest monarchy.

If the royal baby is a boy, Japan would be able to avoid a succession crisis in the imperial family, where no royal males have been born in more than three decades. Asia
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Moves are already afoot to consider altering the nation's strict males-only succession statute to allow a female to inherit the throne.

The Imperial Household Agency said in mid-April that Masako, 37, was showing signs of pregnancy and would be examined by doctors to confirm whether she was with child.

The baby could be born in early December, media said then.

Masako suffered a miscarriage in late 1999 after a highly publicized pregnancy sparked a media circus.

The media frenzy prompted heavy criticism and even Masako herself and her husband Crown Prince Naruhito had some harsh words about the coverage, which some critics said may have contributed to the miscarriage.

A male baby would be second in line to the throne after his father, Naruhito.

No royal males have been born since 1965, when the crown prince's younger brother, Prince Akishino, was born. Akishino's two children are girls.

Female 'emperor'

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said earlier this month that it would consider for the first time legal changes to let a woman inherit the throne, a change that new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he would welcome.

"Personally, I think a female 'emperor' is fine," Koizumi said. He has appointed a record five women to his cabinet formed in April.

"I haven't heard in what form the discussion on the issue will be handled. But I would like people to have thorough discussions as it will be a big issue in the future."

The very thought of a female on the throne is anathema to some conservatives, who in pre-war days saw the emperor as divine.

But calls are mounting from politicians and academics to remove what may be Japan's last legally codified gender inequality.

Royal marriage

For Masako, the birth of an heir would be the happy ending to a frustratingly long wait for the one-time career diplomat.

When Masako agreed to marry Naruhito in 1993 after keeping him waiting for months, many had hoped the most cosmopolitan princess in Japanese history would liberate the tradition-bound court.

For Masako was not only a multilingual diplomat with a career of her own but had lived abroad as a child and graduated from Harvard University in the United States.

Instead, the royal marriage transformed the vibrant and articulate career woman into a demure, soft-spoken shadow walking three steps behind her husband, a change much lamented in both Japanese and foreign media.

Masako had apparently had strong misgivings about what life would be like in the conservative royal household.

But Naruhito persevered, reportedly phoning her night after night during their eight-month courtship and finally winning her heart by promising to protect her from the worst demands of life behind the palace moat.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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