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Japan's Public Is Pregnant With Delight

Royalty: Announcement that crown prince's wife may be expecting first child touches off celebrations.

April 17, 2001|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japan erupted in joy Monday after the government announced that Princess Masako, wife of the crown prince, "is showing signs of pregnancy." After years of bad economic and political news, word of a possible heir was a cause for celebration.

Television stations broke into their normal programming to air special reports. Ordinary Japanese gushed with delight.

"Wow, this is just great," said Keiko Suzuki, a 44-year-old bank worker and mother of two. "She finally did it."

If the baby is a boy, he will be second in line to the throne, after his father, Crown Prince Naruhito. The nation has waited expectantly for news of an heir to the 2,600-year-old Chrysanthemum Throne since commoner Masako Owada married Naruhito in June 1993.

So far, Japan has resisted calls to allow women to lead the imperial family. Although Japanese will be pleased with any royal birth, having a male heir is the focus of national attention.

Asked by reporters shortly after their wedding how many children she expected to have, Masako said she did not expect to produce enough to fill an orchestra, despite her husband's well-known love of classical music. A year later, when the couple were nudged about timing, the prince countered that heaping more pressure on them would only put the stork in a bad mood.

As the years passed, the prince and princess found it more difficult to laugh off endless questions and growing social pressure. When word leaked out in December 1999 that Masako was expecting, a press scrum ensued. Her subsequent miscarriage was blamed on the suffocating attention.

Television footage of her riding in the royal limousine Monday showed a smiling and relaxed Masako, with none of the tension evident in her face 16 months earlier. Assuming there are no problems, Japanese media are reporting, the baby will be born in early December.

As word spread, Masako's parent's house in a snazzy Tokyo neighborhood was besieged by the press. "Royal Pregnancy," screamed one headline, as newspapers distributed two-page extra editions for free. Shares of maternity-related companies rose sharply on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, with investors betting that diaper and baby-care companies would benefit from a national childbearing boom.

Politicians rushed to congratulate the couple, amid calls for calm given that the Imperial Household Agency said the announcement was still "unofficial."

Despite the hedging, most people took it as a good sign that the agency had volunteered the information, and that the pregnancy is more than six weeks along.

With 20/20 hindsight, pundits started looking back at the royal couple's schedule. Masako canceled a three-day trip to Kyoto on April 4 with the official excuse that she had a cold. A few days later, she attended an international trade meeting in Tokyo, where reporters were warned that "her cold might come back." Most of her schedule after that was cleared.

Nippon Television, which has paid close attention over the years to the height of Masako's heels on the assumption that pregnant princesses tend to be well grounded, praised the timing of the announcement.

The news comes 10 months after the death of Empress Dowager Nagako, which, when combined with the recent blossoming of Japan's beloved cherry trees, was said to have reinforced the cycle of rebirth and renewal.

"Spring has come to the imperial family," gushed one Nippon Television caption.

Some even hope it will be a spring for the economy.

"This is great news," said Tamotsu Aoki, an anthropologist with the National Institute for Policy Studies. "This might be the end of Japan's lost decade."

Masako, a Harvard-educated former Foreign Ministry official, turned the prince down several times before finally agreeing to marry him. The straight-talking diplomat, who was on a professional fast track, was reportedly wary of joining an ancient institution that requires its members to stay largely out of the public eye, avoid strong opinions and participate in archaic religious ceremonies.

Modernity has not come easily to the imperial household. Only in 1986 did Imperial Household Agency bureaucrats allow the limousine of Emperor Akihito, who was then the crown prince, to stop at a traffic light.

When Masako finally agreed to the marriage in late 1992, she was hailed as a member of a new generation who might help change the institution.

She has updated the imperial family's image somewhat by driving her own car and riding the occasional mountain bike. She visited victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and has even spoken tangentially about the minor tensions that modern couples face.

In practice, however, almost every move made by her and other imperial family members is scripted by the 1,060 bureaucrats at the Imperial Household Agency, supported by an annual budget of $158 million. As dictated by custom, she is to walk three steps behind her husband, wave with studied nonchalance and attend ribbon-cuttings, charity events and ceremonial dinners.

Japanese support for the imperial family stands as high as 90%, and even those who may not endorse the system are generally happy on a personal level with Monday's news, said Yukio Wani, an independent journalist who writes on history.

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Rie Sasaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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