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The government is secretly preparing for a landmark legal change that would allow Princess Aiko, daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako, to become the first reigning empress in more than two centuries, The Times reported Monday.

The London newspaper quoted a senior Imperial Palace source as saying that concern about the lack of a male heir has forced the Imperial court to begin studying the possibility that the Crown Prince may be succeeded by his 1-year-old daughter.

“This is a politically sensitive issue, so we can’t publicly admit we are researching the possibility,” The Times quoted the source as saying. “But as a matter of fact we are, and we would be negligent not to.”

While senior officials of the Imperial Household Agency have denied considering any changes to the emperor system, senior sources privately admit that planning has begun and that unless Crown Prince Naruhito, 43, and Princess Masako, 39, have a son in the next few years, public debate will formally begin, the newspaper said.

The newspaper praised the move as a “symbolic boost for Japanese women, who remain poorly represented in politics, academia and the top echelons of business.” Japan last had a reigning empress in the 18th century, when Empress Go-Sakuramachi was on the throne from 1762 to 1770.

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