- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

TOKYO(Agence France-Presse) — A government-appointed panel said this week that letting a woman ascend the Japan- ese throne was one option to avert an imperial succession crisis, but added that there needs to be more debate about the idea, which is supported by much of the public.

No son has been born to the Japanese royal family since 1965, putting intense pressure on Crown Princess Masako, who makes few appearances because of stress on her to produce a male heir.

But the 10-member panel, which has studied the issue since January, said in an interim report that Japan also could resolve the problem by making more imperial male relatives eligible to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

“Ultimately, it became clear that the chief matter of argument is whether to maintain male succession,” Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, a former president of the University of Tokyo who leads the panel, told reporters.

“We didn’t agree how to proceed with further discussion, but we did agree to make one recommendation later this year and not issue a final report containing two options,” Mr. Yoshikawa said.

In the report, the celebrity-studded panel said either option to end the looming succession crisis poses potential problems.

“There is no rational reason to stick to male succession,” the report said.

But it added that reigning empresses have been the exception in Japan’s history, and that any woman on the throne might face questions about her legitimacy.

Japan’s last reigning empress was Go-Sakuramachi, who abdicated in 1771.

Dropping male-only succession rules would put Princess Aiko, 3, the daughter of Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito, in line for the throne. Prince Akishino, the crown prince’s younger and only brother, has two daughters.

Some Japanese commentators say the issue is urgent because Aiko would need special upbringing by imperial aides if she were to become a reigning empress. But she would be unlikely to ascend the throne for some time.

Emperor Akihito, 71, is thought to be in good health despite a bout with prostate cancer. Naruhito is 45.

The panel also found obstacles to expanding the number of men eligible to ascend the throne.

The idea would require “broad understanding by the Japanese people” because the genetic links of former royal families to the current royal family are distant, the report said.

U.S. occupation authorities reduced the number of imperial titles in 1947 to save government expenses. The United States allowed Emperor Hirohito to stay on the throne after he surrendered and renounced his divinity.

Some traditionalists have argued that Japan should expand the royal ranks to avert the crisis.

But opinion polls show wide public support for female succession and sympathy for Masako, a Harvard University graduate who gave up a promising diplomatic career for the royal marriage.

Meanwhile, data issued midweek by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications showed that the number of men in Japan has fallen for the first time since the government started counting the population by sex.

Japan had 62,076,658 men at the end of March, a decline of 10,680 from a year earlier and the first fall since the government began keeping track in 1968, according to the data.

The female population rose 55,911 to 64,792,739, with the overall population edging up 0.04 percent year from last year to 126,869,397, the lowest growth rate on record.

The data are in line with forecasts that Japan’s population will peak at 127.8 million in 2006 before falling because of dwindling births. Such figures are fueling fears of a demographic and economic crisis as a smaller work force supports a growing aged population.

Japan’s birthrate has been declining each year as fewer young people have children, seeing families as impediments to their lifestyles and careers.

The expected population decline also has started to open the sensitive debate on whether historically homogenous Japan should open its doors to large-scale immigration.

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