Harumi Kobayashi has been an enthusiastic admirer of the Imperial family for more than a decade. She has followed the royals around the country, greeted them and taken their pictures. In fact, she has become such a familiar face at Imperial events that some members of the family respond specifically to her greetings.

Kobayashi’s latest obsession is Princess Kiko and her baby-to-be. Kobayashi wants to be there to capture the moment when they leave Aiiku Hospital together.

The Imperial Household Agency announced Friday that Princess Kiko, the wife of Prince Akishino, 40, Emperor Akihito’s second son, will receive a Cesarean section, due to pregnancy complications, on Sept. 6.

If the baby is a boy, he will be the first male born to the Imperial family in 41 years and third in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne after Crown Prince Naruhito, 46, and the child’s father.

“I’m the same age as Princess Kiko. I got married the same year that she married Prince Akishino, and gave birth to my first child the same year she had her first,” said Kobayashi, explaining her affinity for the princess. The 40-year-old homemaker lives with her husband, two children and father-in-law in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture.

Kobayashi may be particularly devoted, but public interest in the Imperial family has been growing of late in general, particularly among women, not only because of Princess Kiko’s pregnancy but because of speculation about the relationship between Princess Kiko and her sister-in-law, Crown Princess Masako, who has been suffering a adjustment disorder for more than two years.

The media have fed the public’s appetite for royal gossip.

Three major women’s weeklies have run at least one article per issue about the Imperial family since March 2004, a few months after the Imperial Household Agency announced that the Crown Princess was suspending her public duties, said Bunichi Terada, deputy editor in chief in charge of Imperial family matters at the women’s magazine Shukan Josei.

“Before (the announcement) we used to carry a feature on (the Imperial family) once every two or three weeks,” Terada said, adding that major weeklies aimed mostly at men, including Shukan Bunshun and Shukan Shincho, have also increased their coverage of the Imperial family.

The reports offer details about the Imperial family based on stories from journalists and anonymous sources.

Stories often refer to the heavy pressure on Crown Princess Masako to produce a male heir.

Another recurring theme is the reported differences of opinion between Crown Prince Naruhito and Prince Akishino regarding their public duties. The alleged rivalry between the brothers has reportedly spilled over to their wives: Princess Kiko models her behavior on that of her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, while the Crown Princess is said to be very nervous in front of the Emperor and Empress.

“Reading such magazine articles may be like watching a soap opera” depicting a traditional family, with Crown Princess Masako at the center of the drama, Terada said. “People love to peek at others’ misfortunes.”

Many women in their 50s and 60s tend to identify with the Empress and like Princess Kiko, who appears to have adapted smoothly to court life. They are less sympathetic toward the Crown Princess, who has not adjusted as well, Terada said.

Women in their 30s and 40s, on the other hand, favor the Crown Princess, a Harvard-educated diplomat who gave up her career to marry the Crown Prince and has had only one child, Princess Aiko, 4, after earlier suffering a miscarriage.

Kobayashi, who became a devotee of the royals when Crown Princess Masako married in 1993, said Princess Kiko is lucky because she married into the Imperial family and had two children, Princess Mako, 14, and Princess Kako, 11, before the 42-year-old Crown Princess had her daughter.

Princess Kiko, 39, met Prince Akishino while studying at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. Although she had entered graduate school in 1989, she married in June 1990.

“She must have been relieved, as she had a child soon after marriage and had more opportunities to communicate with the Empress and seek advice from her,” Kobayashi speculated. “Since she is the wife of the second son, she may be able to have a more relaxed life.”

Mayuko Hashimoto, 37, of Tokyo, who has a 1-year-old girl, sympathizes with the Crown Princess, partly because she went through a similar experience.

Hashimoto, a former securities analyst, quit her job to undergo fertility treatment because she was unable to have a child for five years after getting married.

“In the business world, you can get better results if you work harder. But having a child is something that you can’t control through your own effort. I think it’s not fair that people criticize” Crown Princess Masako for not having a male heir, Hashimoto said.

Ayuu Ishida, a lecturer in sociology at Kyoto Seika University, said women in their 30s and 40s see themselves in the two different types of princess.

Women now have to make a lot of decisions from whether to marry, whether to quit working after marriage, whether to have children, and if so, how many, said Ishida, 32, who recently published “Mitchy Boom,” a book on how the media covered the marriage between the Emperor and Empress Michiko, who after the war was the first commoner to become Crown Princess.

“Women are free to make any decision they like, but they are not really free because of (social) pressure. So they can see (Crown Princess Masako’s) problems as their own.” Ishida said. By contrast, “Princess Kiko does not appear to be struggling” to adapt to Imperial traditions.

Ishida said it is easier for people to gossip about the princesses because their lives are far removed from those of the royals, whereas the Imperial system itself and its role in Japanese society and politics are serious and difficult topics for discussion.

Now the media have latched onto the sex of Princess Kiko’s baby, and speculation is rife regarding the psychological impact on the Crown Princess if Princess Kiko has a boy.

The Imperial Household Law allows only males in the Emperor’s line to succeed to the throne. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had introduced a bill to the Diet that would have revised the law to allow a woman to inherit the throne, but deliberations on the change were suspended when Princess Kiko’s pregnancy was announced.

Hashimoto said she is worried that if it’s a boy, Crown Princess Masako may be placed in a vulnerable position, adding that the law should be revised so that women can ascend the throne and make Japan’s male-dominated society more equal.

But one 41-year-old woman who works at a foreign cosmetics company, and has a 5-year-old boy, said if Princess Kiko has a boy, this could take some of the pressure off the Crown Princess to have a son.

“Before Princess Kiko got pregnant, I thought a woman should be allowed to succeed to the throne. But now I think Crown Princess Masako may be relieved (if a boy is born). And Princess Aiko may be able to have a happier life if she leaves the Imperial family and marries a commoner.”

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