TOKYO - The delivery of a healthy baby girl yesterday to Crown Princess Masako ended a long drought in births in the Japanese imperial family. But because only males are allowed to accede to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the debate over the future of the world's oldest imperial line is just beginning.
Scores of ordinary people celebrated the birth of the new princess, at the Imperial Household Agency Hospital shortly before 3 p.m. on a brilliant afternoon. They shouted "banzai!" and cheered outside the Imperial Palace.
"It is good that the birth went well," a court official quoted Emperor Akihito, the baby's grandfather, as saying upon hearing the news. The official said Empress Michiko shed tears of joy when told of the birth of her eldest son's first child.
Opening a round of celebratory statements that varied from political and business leaders to people on the street, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters: "This is really good news, and I hope it brings a cheerful atmosphere to the country. I'm relieved that the mother and baby are both fine."
But the arrival of a baby girl, whose name Emperor Akihito will decide in seven days, according to ancient court traditions, is bringing calls for a change in laws governing imperial succession to allow a woman to sit on the throne.
"Don't you think it is strange that only men can occupy the throne?" said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, an opposition member of parliament from Osaka. "I certainly think so. It highlights the discrepancy between the sexes in Japanese society. I was in Kyoto station today, and heard the voices of many women saying they were so sorry that a girl had been born.
"This shows the low recognition that we give to women in Japan."
Women have played an important role here in both imperial history and myth. Legend holds that the country's imperial rulers date back 125 generations, and descend in a direct line from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the family's mythical progenitor. But though as many as 10 women have occupied the throne at various times during the 1,500 years of imperial history, a 1948 law allows only men to reign.
Under different circumstances, nothing but patience might be in order. But Princess Masako will turn 38 in about a week.
Her baby is only the third grandchild born to the 67-year-old Emperor Akihito, who has reigned since 1989 - and all three were girls. The last imperial birth was six years ago, when Crown Prince Naruhito's brother, Akishino, and his wife, Princess Kiko, had the second of their two daughters.
At 37, Prince Akishino has become something of a relic: the last male born in the imperial line. He is second in line for succession, after his brother, Naruhito. Had a male child been born, that baby would have become third in line to succeed Emperor Akihito.
Although the imperial family is shielded from public attention and its affairs managed by the ultrasecretive Imperial Household Agency, the lack of eligible heirs has become a matter of growing concern.
Together with his wife, Princess Masako, the new father, 41-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, has increasingly shown signs of strain from the burdens of reproductive expectations in the course of his eight-year marriage.
Princess Masako - a Harvard- and Oxford-educated former diplomat and only the second commoner to marry a crown prince, after her mother-in-law, Princess Michiko - has borne even greater pressures. There were frenzied celebrations in this economically stricken nation when it was learned that she was pregnant in late 1999. it was announced less than a month later that she had suffered a miscarriage.
In a recent public opinion poll, 55.2 percent of those who responded were in favor of an empress, up by 22.9 percentage points from the previous survey in 1999.