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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Japan's royals may need intervention - either medical
or legal - to keep their 1,500-year-old dynasty alive

By Todd Crowell and Murakami Mutsuko

more stories
Radical Change The case for a woman on the throne
WHEN OWADA MASAKO MARRIED Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, the Japanese thought it was the best thing to happen to the imperial family in years. The public was thrilled by their story: A formidably educated, modern woman gives up her diplomatic career to marry her prince and, it was thought, to bring a fresh breeze into a stuffy imperial household. And a determined emperor-to-be who ignores all potential brides to win her hand in marriage.

As the couple celebrate their sixth anniversary this month, much about the storybook romance remains true. They seem to be genuinely devoted. The pair go on mountain hikes, take snapshots of each other on formal tours and play music together. Not a whiff of scandal has ever touched their marriage. Only one thing clouds this happy picture. They remain childless. At the same point in her marriage, Britain's Princess Diana had already produced an "heir and a spare."

In any other family, of course, this situation would be a matter of personal inclination or private grief. But Naruhito will, on his father's death, become the 126th emperor in a line that stretches back 2,800 years into the mists of legend. Even discounting some of the earlier emperors as mythical figures, historical evidence traces the imperial line from at least the 6th century to Emperor Akihito - without once having passed to another family.

Japan's imperial family traces its ancestry back to the mythical Jimmu. Because the law restricts the throne to males, only seven men are in line to succeed Emperor Akihito

name and relationship
with akihito
1. Naruhito 39
2. Akishino 33
3. Hitachi 63
4. Mikasa (Takahito) 83
5. Mikasa (Tomohito) 53
6. Katsura 51
7. Takamado 48
This is a record of dynastic continuity unmatched in Asia or anywhere else in the world. In Thailand, for example, the present Chakri royal family was preceded by two others - that of the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya houses. The British royal family can be traced back 900 years to William the Conqueror, although the succession has passed through a number of families to the house of Windsor.

At present, seven men (only males are eligible), including the crown prince and his brother, Akishino, are in line for the throne. Two are still relatively young, but the remaining five are middle-aged or older. Moreover, none has a son. Prince Akishino and his wife have two daughters. Indeed, no males have been born into the imperial family for more than 30 years. If this trend continues, the end could come for the Japanese imperial line.

Almost as soon as they returned from their honeymoon, royal watchers began looking for signs that Masako was bearing an heir (of course, the possibility remains that even if she became pregnant, her child might be a girl too). Speculation rose every time she canceled a public event because of a fever or a cold. Countless newspaper articles reminded readers that Empress Michiko had used similar excuses when she conceived. But these hopes are regularly dashed when Masako reappears in public obviously still not pregnant.

Last year, the press zeroed in on a subtle request to the organizers of a sports meeting for handicapped people in Yokohama. The Imperial Household Agency had asked that extra handrails be put into the hallways leading to the athletic field where Masako and her sister-in-law, Princess Kiko, were to attend the event.

Ah hah. Royal watchers swiftly drew comparisons to an instance 24 years ago when similar installations were made for the then pregnant Michiko.

More recent conjecture has centered on the likely prospects of the royal couple seeking professional help. The clue: a visit Masako made to a hospital in Fukushima, northern Honshu, as part of a blood-donation campaign. Immediately, pundits noted that a prominent infertility specialist was based at the facility. And, as it happens, the hospital is handy to the imperial seaside villa at Nasu.

"I'm pretty sure that the couple is taking some measures," says Watanabe Midori, the author of several books about the imperial family. Naruhito and Masako, who are well educated and realize what can be achieved through science, cannot be leaving things to chance, she reckons. Besides, the couple have not exactly been stressed in their official duties. They have made only two overseas trips together and frequently holiday at imperial villas and mountain retreats around the country.

In the past, Naruhito often brushed aside questions about prospects of a baby with the quip that he would leave those matters to the stork. More recently, he had a typically oblique but more sober answer to the perennial question: "I fully recognize the degree of people's interest in this matter as well as the importance." The issue, evidently, weighs heavily on his mind.

If the crown prince and princess are turning to modern medicine, Japan is well-served by top specialists and the latest technologies. Indeed, infertility is a growing problem among young Japanese. As many as 15% of couples are estimated to require help. Hundreds of test-tube babies have been born through artificial insemination in Japan since the first successful case in 1983. Among the most well-known beneficiaries of such scientific advances is popular novelist Hayashi Mariko, who gave birth in her mid-40s.

"The princess is still young at 35, and there is nothing to worry or become desperate about," maintains Dr. Iizuka Rihashi, one of Japan's leading obstetricians. He has treated hundreds of people. At his Tokyo clinic, about 80% of the patients become pregnant within six months. Successes include two dozen women in their late 40s and another over 50.

Most of the postulation revolves around Masako, of course. If Japanese are reluctant to publicly discuss such personal details concerning the princess, they are even more loath to speculate that the difficulties might lie with the prince. Several married members of the imperial family are childless, including Emperor Akihito's brother, his uncle and a cousin. Moreover, an increasing number of Japanese men are producing insufficient or defective sperm.

All artificial fertilization in the country is carried out between married men and women. Although there is no law against the practice, the National Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists frowns on treatment involving participants who are strangers to each other. Clearly, this would be even less likely with the imperial couple. Japan has yet to set up a sperm bank or surrogate system, though the government is to consider guidelines for third-party sperm donors next year.

An article in Shukan Shincho magazine raised the possibility of alternative remedies. Certain packages, it reported, had been delivered to a high-ranking official of the Imperial Household Agency. The contents: capsules of ginseng extract, which is widely believed to promote virility. According to the magazine, the official ordered 12 packages from the Tokyo manufacturer last September and asked for an additional 24 packages two months later.

But if nature or science cannot come to the rescue, what other courses are open to prevent the imperial line from dying out? Adoption is out. Not only is it illegal for the imperial family, it would be unlikely to get public support. In the past, the crown prince might have taken a concubine, but this is now unthinkable. Moreover, Naruhito has the example of his grandfather, Hirohito, who flatly refused to take a second wife despite a worrying succession of daughters.

The obvious solution would be to change the Imperial House Law so that a female could accede to the throne. This would place the two small daughters of Prince Akishino, Mako, 7, and Kako, 4, in the line of succession. Increasingly, the Japanese public is getting used to the idea of a woman as a symbolic head-of-state.

While the Imperial Household Agency is studiously silent on this issue, officials are said to be intently studying cases and laws governing European dynasties. At least one team has been dispatched to make discreet inquiries. All European monarchies permit female succession, though Britain, Spain and Denmark give preference to males.

Masako is often held up as a model for Japanese women, who are increasingly pursuing professional careers, marrying late, if at all, and postponing childbirth. A pacesetter in many ways, the princess may yet turn out to be a role model in a way that nobody had ever anticipated.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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