Thu, Dec 29, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Lacking the royal Y chromosome

A Japanese government panel's recommendation that a female line should be allowed to take the throne has sparked debate over women's rights, genetics and the merits of the concubine system

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

For centuries, men have ascended to Japan's imperial throne, one of the world's oldest hereditary monarchies. Eight women have reigned as empresses but never bore heirs, so the Chrysanthemum Throne reverted to a male relative who was a direct descendant of the imperial line.

But faced with the harsh reality that neither of the current emperor's two sons is likely to produce a male heir, a government panel recommended recently that the US-imposed Imperial Household Law of 1947 be revised to allow a female line to hold the throne.

The possibility has ignited a furious debate over the most delicate of subjects -- the imperial system and its significance to Japan -- and over topics as varied as the status of Japanese women, the merits of the concubine system and the purity of the imperial Y chromosome.

"We discussed how to preserve the imperial system from a mid- to long-term point of view," Itsuo Sonobe, deputy chairman of the 10-member government panel and a former Supreme Court justice, said in an interview. "The three major pillars of discussion were that the succession system should be constitutional and stable, and that, furthermore, it should win the people's support."

The panel proposed that an emperor's first child, regardless of its sex, ascend to the throne and, further, that women be allowed to retain their imperial status after marriage. Today, they leave the imperial palace and become commoners when they wed, as Princess Sayako, the daughter of Emperor Akihito, did recently.

The recommendation, which is expected to be introduced as a bill in Parliament next year, would clear the way for Princess Aiko, the emperor's four-year-old granddaughter, to one day ascend to the throne and have her own firstborn succeed her.

The proposal arose out of the current imperial family situation. Princess Aiko is the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito, 45, and Crown Princess Masako, 42. Princess Masako, a former diplomat educated at Harvard and Oxford, came under intense pressure to bear a male heir since marrying the future emperor in 1993.

Princess Masako gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001, after which the pressure to have a boy only increased. That is believed to have caused what the Imperial Household Agency said last year was the princess' depression and anxiety. The princess, who has received therapy, has rarely been seen in public since the end of 2003.

Under the current system, a son from Emperor Akihito's other son, Prince Akishino, 40, could ascend. But Prince Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko, have two daughters, and, despite prodding from the Imperial Household Agency, are not thought to be trying for a third child.

Recent opinion polls show that most Japanese overwhelmingly back the idea of an empress, though support dips for a female line.

According to Japanese myth, the first emperor, Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, began his reign 2,665 years ago; historians, though, trace the start of Japan's imperial system to the fourth or fifth century.

Some opponents of establishing a female imperial line cite that ancient precedent. Tsuneyasu Takeda, 30, a member of a former imperial family branch, said Japan should no more alter Horyu Temple, its oldest wooden building, than interfere with the throne's unbroken male bloodline.

"Why not rebuild Horyu Temple as a concrete building?" said Takeda, author of The Truth About the Imperial Family. "If you did, it would be something completely different."

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