No wonder the Crown Princess gets depressed. The spectacle of the chasm between the Imperial family and the 21st century has long been enough to depress anyone. But then, just when the princess must have thought the gap might be closing a bit, given the prime minister’s efforts to win the right of succession for the family’s female members, along comes an unexpected pregnancy to send everything back to square one.

It is not that the princess would not wish to congratulate her brother- and sister-in-law, Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, on their joyous news. The whole nation does. It is just that she must dread having to explain to her 4-year-old daughter why people’s joy seems to be so dependent on this new cousin being a boy. Whatever happened to the idea that girls are just as special, just as valued, as boys? How do you explain why some people think being a girl is such a crippling defect it automatically disqualifies you from a job that carries no power anyway? Or why it would still be empowering to women for a woman to accede to a position of such bizarre powerlessness?

Such questions and contradictions went to the heart of the Crown Princess’s well-known uneasiness with the archaic system into which she had married. But now the fuss over Princess Kiko’s pregnancy has thrown those contradictions into super-high relief. For a while, the world thought Japan was on the verge of letting its Imperial family edge into the modern age. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was pursuing a farsighted proposal for a legislative amendment that would permit female succession, and a majority of the public supported him.

Now, the possibility that the second-in-line to the throne may produce a male heir has shattered the impression that the country was about to take an important step forward. Mr. Koizumi himself appears to have determined not to make a rush about the issue of imperial succession in view of growing resistance to the idea of a female ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

If Japan was truly ready for a female emperor, why is everyone so thrilled about this pregnancy? Television announcers all but wept breaking the news on Tuesday. And opponents of the prime minister’s plan appear giddy with relief at the thought that a boy could yet appear and save the nation from the frightful prospect of a reigning empress who could be succeeded in turn by her own daughters.

That last clause has been a particular bone of contention, stirring echoes of the 16th-century Scottish theologian John Knox’s notorious “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” There is not a sliver of difference between Knox’s view of the place of women in 1558 and the view held by the old guard of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2006: “To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation, or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God and the subversion of good order.”

Unfortunately, the old guard may be right to think their cause has been boosted by Princess Kiko’s pregnancy. Interviews in the street this past week suggest that much of the public support for Mr. Koizumi’s proposal stemmed from the absence of a male heir; better Princess Aiko than no one, people hinted. Now that there is a chance of a boy, many appear to favor a wait-and-see approach.

That is a profoundly discouraging response, if not quite the virulent misogyny that has colored the campaign against Mr. Koizumi’s plan in recent weeks. Some critics had become so desperate to keep a woman from the throne that they appeared willing not just to stall social advances but to reverse them. The Crown Prince and Princess could get a divorce, they said, thereby freeing the Crown Prince to “try again” for a son. No one explained what would happen if the Imperial couple did not want a divorce. Others advocated reviving the concubine tradition, of all things, or extending eligibility to male scions of dormant aristocratic “houses.”

The public had not, by and large, embraced these retrograde suggestions. But the readiness of many people to see the new plan shelved or postponed suggests that the idea of equality has only shallow roots here: A woman is still second-best, a last resort. If Mr. Koizumi’s proposal was the right thing to do last week, it still is this week, because women’s equality must be seen as absolute, not relative.

Some might argue that this is all a tempest in a teacup, because the emperor system is purely symbolic, anyway. But that is exactly why it is important. What better vehicle than the monarchy to set a symbolic example on social issues? Last week’s news has set that effort back — but there is still room for optimism. The new baby might be a girl, thus putting this crucial debate back on track. Here’s hoping.

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