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The Financial Times
Koizumi's succession bill looks set to wilt
By David Pilling and Kaori Suzuki in Tokyo
Published: February 11 2006 02:00 | Last updated: February 11 2006 02:00
Junichiro Koizumi, who last year battered down what he called a "medieval fortress" by privatising the post office, appears to have had less luck with an even older Japanese institution: the Chrysanthemum throne.
The prime minister yesterday said he would "proceed cautiously" with negotiations on a bill to allow female imperial succession, all but conceding it would be difficult to push the revision past legislators wary of tampering with 2,000 years of tradition. Cabinet ministers hinted the prime minister would abandon the bill, but Mr Koizumi denied reports he had already done so.
The sudden possibility this week of a male heir has galvanised an already growing revolt among traditionalists and appears to have scuppered any chance of passing the bill before Mr Koizumi steps down in September.
In the very month the prime minister is due to relinquish his premiership, the child of Princess Kiko, wife of the Crown Prince's younger brother, is due to be born. If the baby is a boy, he will be third in line for the throne, thereby ending a succession crisis resulting from the fact that no male has been born into the imperial family since 1965.
Even before the announcement of the pregnancy - which came just as Mr Koizumi was answering parliamentary questions on the succession bill - 170 MPs had signed a petition urging caution. Empresses have sat as recently as the 18th century on the imperial throne, said to go back to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, but none has passed on succession.
Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Temple university, said: "I thought the revision of the imperial succession law was a slam dunk and Princess Aiko [four-year-old daughter of the Crown Prince] would be starting her imperial training. Now I don't think it's going to happen under Koizumi."
The issue of imperial succession has opened up a lively debate about the role of Japanese women in a society where men still dominate public life.
Yukiko Ebinuma, a 27-year-old freelance writer, said: "I support female succession. Why should the Japanese government stick to old-fashioned ways? They should model our monarchy on the British royal family."
Ms Ebinuma, speaking in Hibya park, within a stone's throw of the Imperial Palace's extensive gardens, said she was suspicious of the timing of the imperial pregnancy, which could come to the rescue of traditionalists. "I was quite surprised to hear that Princess Kiko is pregnant, but this is Japan," she shrugged. "The baby will probably be a boy."
Wataru Takahashi, a 52-year-old photographer taking pictures on the outskirts of the imperial palace grounds, was supportive of updating the succession law.
"Japanese women used to be expected to stay at home doing housework, but now more and more women work outside," he said. "It is natural to have an empress in such a period. The Japanese royal family should become more open, because it is still an unknown world to ordinary Japanese people."
Yet a recent shift in opinion polls suggests the public may be more wary of tampering with tradition than at first appears. A Nikkei survey this week showed that 63 per cent of people supported female succession, a drop from nearly 80 per cent in a previous poll when the issue was more abstract.
Analysts said public opinion could swing further, given that the possible birth of a male heir in September would head off the need for radical change. Masayuki Seki, an executive with a manufacturing company, said: "If Princess Kiko's child were a boy, it would be better for most Japanese."
Japan baby could end royal reform