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The birth of a baby girl to the Crown Prince and Princess on Saturday, the first in the couple’s 8 1/2-year marriage, is likely to refuel debate within political circles over whether the Imperial House Law should be revised to allow the nation to have a reigning empress.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi warned against undue haste Saturday evening: “The matter should be discussed carefully. It is still too early to make a decision.”

Immediately after the pregnancy of the 37-year-old Crown Princess was announced in May, Koizumi said, “I will wait and see the discussions going on within (the Liberal Democratic Party) over the Imperial House Law.” Some speculated that this meant he would not oppose a review of the 1948 law.

Succession rules under the law say that only a male offspring can ascend to the throne. Also, unlike their male counterparts, female members of the Imperial family lose their royal status if they marry people outside the Imperial line.

Therefore, Prince Akishino, the younger brother of the Crown Prince, remains second in line to the throne. Further down the line, the other princes — the Emperor’s uncle, his younger brother and three cousins — are all older than the Crown Prince and Prince Akishino.

If the law is revised and the newborn baby allowed to ascend to the throne, she will be Japan’s first reigning empress since Empress Go-Sakuramachi, who reigned from 1762 to 1770.

According to an Internet poll conducted jointly by Yahoo Japan and Kyodo News on Saturday, about 85 percent of the pollees supported having a reigning empress on the throne. There were 1,765 responses to the poll as of 10 p.m.

Six percent said only men should be allowed to ascend the throne, while 8 percent said they are not interested in the issue.

Perhaps reflecting such public opinion, a consensus appears to be gaining ground within the ruling coalition that the rules should be revised in line with the trend for gender equality.

“It is only natural that the nation should be allowed to have a reigning empress,” a senior LDP lawmaker said.

Takenori Kanzaki, chief of the LDP’s coalition partner New Komeito, also indicated in May that his party supports the idea.

However, specific discussions for a revision to the law do not appear to have taken place within the ruling bloc.

Koizumi reportedly planned initially to take up the issue in a panel set up within the LDP, but the matter has since been effectively shelved while the prime minister’s attention was drawn to a more pressing political agenda.

In November, an LDP panel reviewing the Constitution held a “study session” on the issue and is scheduled to take up the matter again later this month. However, it is unclear whether the panel will directly tackle the question of revising the succession rules, according to a panel member.

Leaders of opposition parties also expressed willingness earlier this year to revise the Imperial House Law to allow for a reigning empress. But debate over the issue within the opposition camp rapidly lost momentum as the ruling parties pushed the issue to the sidelines.

In early May, top leaders of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party said it is their “common opinion” that the rules should be revised, according to DPJ chief Yukio Hatoyama. The DPJ once proposed creating a government panel to discuss revising the Imperial law, but the idea was eventually not incorporated in the party’s platform for the Upper House election in July.

SDP leader Takako Doi also appeared supportive of a revision for the sake of gender equality, but a consensus has not yet been reached within the party.

A senior leader of the Liberal Party said earlier, “It is impolite (to the Imperial family) to discuss the matter even before the baby is born.”

The Japanese Communist Party has not taken up the issue, saying that the Imperial system itself runs counter to the constitutional principle that the nation’s sovereign power rests with the people.

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