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Empress in the making?


December 1 dawned as a special day for not just the monarchy but also for the people of Japan. Aiko, the miracle princess, was born and the nation rejoiced. Will she wear the Crown some day?

The proud parents — Naruhito and Masako — with their little princess.

PRINCESS AIKO of Japan is the most important fairy tale today. Born to Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako eight years after their marriage in 1993, Aiko came after a serious miscarriage her mother suffered in 1999. Doctors were never sure that she would conceive again. When Masako delivered Aiko on December 1, Japan breathed easy.

But this apart, the royal birth has not caused the kind of sensation we have come to associate monarchy with elsewhere, especially in Europe.

Princess Diana was not just a little Cinderella who fell in love with Prince Charming, but she was also one who became a media celebrity, hunted and hounded by journalists and photographers desperate for a scoop or an unusual shot. Admittedly, Diana had much to offer; her life was wildly eventful, the kind that newspapers and television would love to lay their hands on.

Long before Diana emerged, we knew yet another princess who stole Hollywood's heart before she enchanted the south of France. Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco, proved to be not just the darling of her man, but also of her principality, nay the world itself. Tragically, both Diana and Grace died in road accidents.

Princess Masako may be a commoner — a career diplomat who met Naruhito seven years before they wed — like Diana and Grace were, but there ends the comparison. The Japanese royalty has remained secluded behind what is referred to as the Chrysanthemum Curtain.

Although Aiko's birth made banner headlines in the country's dailies and magazines, journalists have, by and large, followed a strict code of self-discipline. No chasing the Crown Prince and his Princess on motorcycles, no hidden cameras in the gyms that they go to for a workout.

Yet, the Imperial Household Agency — in charge of the Palace — blamed the media for Masako's loss two years ago, and imposed even more rigid controls on reporting royal affairs.

The Agency feels that Japan's first family should not ``degenerate'' into either a cycling monarchy, as in some parts of Europe, or an undignified entity, as was the case in Britain.

It was during the time of the present Emperor's grandfather, Taisho — regarded as much too free — that the Agency introduced curbs, whose number has gone up over the years.

However, the average Japanese thinks that the veil must be lifted. Naruhito and Masako are also inclined to step out. They lowered the window pane of their car as they left the hospital after the birth, and cheered at the gathered crowd.

When Naruhito was born, his father, Emperor Akihito, did not go beyond his Palace gate to see his wife, Empress Michiko (also a commoner), off to the hospital. Naruhito accompanied Masako to the hospital, and they plan to raise Aiko without a wet nurse.

Even, the Empress had dispensed with the wet nurse, a system that the Emperor's mother had had to practice. In fact, he had to live away from his parents since the time he was three, following a strict schedule that was intended to groom him for the throne.

Princess Aiko will lead an easier life: she, in any case, may not succeed her father. In Japan, female members of the first family cannot ascend the throne.

Yet, there was a time when Japan had an empress. Of course, it was long ago, 1,300 years ago.

However, the Crown was never really powerful. For most part of history, the real authority lay with either an influential family of courtiers or a military leader, called shogun.

During World War Two, the Japanese military committed several crimes in the name of the Emperor, and the Allies were prudent enough to sift fact from fiction, and did not try him as a war criminal.

Emperor Showa (Akihito's father) rose to the occasion: he renounced divinity, put on an ordinary suit and travelled across the country urging his people to rebuild Japan.

Today, though most men and women support monarchy, they are quite indifferent to it. Professor Kenichi Kawasaki of Komazawa University in Tokyo says that youngsters now are more exercised by the World Cup Football rather than by royalty. They could not care if a woman would some day sit on the throne.

Aiko's birth has, however, renewed a debate on the question of succession. Since Naruhito has no son, and his younger brother, Prince Akishino, too has only daughters, political parties have begun to discuss a possible revision to the Imperial House Law that will enable Aiko to become Empress some day.

But in a society where gender equality is still a sensitive issue, the move to let a woman wear the crown is bound to be resisted, at least covertly.

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