The problem began with Princess Masako. An accomplished Harvard-educated diplomat, fluent in four languages, Masako married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993 and was expected to bring a welcome dose of feminism to the stuffy Japanese imperial family. Instead, Masako was swallowed whole by the all-powerful Imperial Household Agency (IHA), the palace insiders that guard and, according to some observers, dominate the lives of the royal family. Unlike the British royals, for instance, the Japanese imperial family's schedule is completely controlled by the IHA. They aren't allowed to have opinions, passports or even last names. Stifled by the IHA, Masako crumbled under the intense pressure to perform her single duty: to bear a male heir. In 2001, after one miscarriage, she finally bore Princess Aiko, who remains the couple's only child. Not long after the birth, Masako succumbed to a depression that many blamed on the intense pressure placed on her to produce a son. She withdrew from her official duties, and at 43, seems extremely unlikely to produce another child.
Kiko, the second princess, had produced only daughters as well, and the Japanese royal family seemed in real danger of dying out. With that in mind, last November Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi backed an initiative that would change Japanese law to allow a female 4-year-old Princess Aiko to become Empress. Most Japanese were in favor of the new law, thinking that the time had come when a woman could sit on the throne. (In fact, Japan has had several reigning empresses in the past, though none were allowed to pass the throne onto their children.) But the imperial family has long been a rallying point for Japanese conservatives, who consider the emperor the spiritual center of Japan, and they fought hard against the possibility of an Empress: 170 Diet members signed a cross-party petition against the new law, and other opponents included the conservative Chief Cabinet Secretary and likely future Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Former Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma's xenophobic comments were typical: "If Aiko becomes the reigning empress and gets involved with a blue-eyed foreigner while studying abroad and marries him, their child may become emperor," he said in February. "We should never let that happen."
The liberals, though, had public support and demography on their side. With both princesses pushing middle age, where was a new prince going to come from? But then, as the debate heated up, the IHA made the surprise announcement iin February that 39-year-old Kiko was pregnant and was due to give birth in September, just when Koizumi was scheduled to step down. "I feel God really exists," said the conservative former justice minister Hiroshi Nakai on hearing the news. Though the Internet burned with speculation over the suspicious timing of Kiko's pregnancy, the news immediately put Koizumi's initiative on the back burner. Now, with the birth of a prince, the law is almost certainly dead, and Kiko's boy will cut ahead of Aiko in the line of succession . Still, the quick abandonment of the revision reminds Japanese women just how low the glass ceiling still remains in their country, and underscores how strong political conservatism has become in Japan.
But given Japan's demographic trends, the Chrysanthemum Throne may not be a boy's club much longer. It took the royal family 41 years to produce this prince, and when Aiko and her two royal cousins grow up and almost certainly marry commoners, they'll be snipped from the imperial family, leaving the boy the last royal. If the prince and his future wife have the Japanese average of 1.25 children, odds are just about even that they'll only produce princesses and this time, there'll be no backup pregnancies to bail them out.