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Will Japan's princess become the empress?

india Updated: Dec 02, 2006 18:32 IST

Japan's Princess Aiko celebrated her fifth birthday on Friday with few clues as to whether the future will see her ascending the Chrysanthemum Throne or bargain-hunting at the local supermarket.

The September birth of her cousin Prince Hisahito, the imperial household's first male heir in more than 40 years, effectively halted progress on a planned change in the law to allow women to take the throne.

But many commentators say the law should still be revised to avert a future succession crisis.

"The birth of Prince Hisahito did not fully solve the heir problem," said Kenneth Ruoff, a professor at Portland State University and author of "The People's Emperor", a study of the modern-day Japanese monarchy.

"There is no additional male child, no 'reserve' if you will, to ascend to the throne if something should happen to the prince," he added.

That leaves Aiko, the only child of heir-to-the-throne Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife Crown Princess Masako, in limbo.

Under current law, she would lose her imperial status upon marriage, becoming an ordinary citizen, while a change could make her Japan's first reigning empress since the 18th century.

"If Princess Aiko leaves the imperial family, she will need to be able to cook for herself, run a household, open a bank account and so on," said Yohei Mori, a senior lecturer at Seijo Gakuen University and author of books on the imperial family.

"We don't yet know if she is going on the cookery course or on the imperial course," he added.

Aiko's aunt Sayako, who married a commoner last year and now lives as a relatively anonymous housewife, was trained from childhood to deal with the practicalities of everyday life, royal commentators say.

Aiko, currently a shy kindergartner who loves watching sumo wrestling and playing word games, has received no special education to prepare her for the possibility of taking the throne, leading some to worry that she lacks the necessary skills.

"She has never greeted well-wishers in public," said royal expert and author Midori Watanabe. "Her father and uncle were taught to bow and greet people from the age of 3 or so. It made people very happy."

Hisahito, the child of Emperor Akihito's second son, Prince Akishino, and currently third in line to the throne, is also unlikely to be educated in the usual style of heirs to the throne. Aiko's father, Crown Prince Naruhito, for example, had professors from the prestigious Tokyo University brought in to act as his personal tutors.

The vagueness is partly due to a sense of delicacy.

"Openly training Hisahito as an heir would be tantamount to announcing that Crown Princess Masako will not have any more children," Mori said.

"That's not something people can do very easily," he added.

Masako, 42, gave birth to Aiko after eight years of marriage.

The Japanese government likely wants to avoid the conflict that would result from further debate on the divisive issue of imperial succession at this stage.

The issue could even be left on the back burner until the death of the current Emperor, Mori said.