Tokyo (AsiaNews) Politics are behind the stories published by gossip-prone scandal sheets about Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Princess Masako. One day, the rumour mill has it that the two might divorce; the next, gossip-mongers say the prince might opt for an old-fashioned concubine. What is missing from the whole frenzy is a minimum of respect for the dignity of the people involved and the suffering of the 'sad princess'.
It all began when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi included an amendment to the succession law in his reform package that would allow women to ascend to the imperial throne.
His daring proposal was not motivated by any feminist sympathies, but was rather meant to save the reigning dynasty. In 13 years of marriage Princess Masako has only given birth to a daughter, Aiko, who is now four.
Only case in world history, Japan's royal family has been on the throne without any break for more than two thousand years. During this long period only eight women ever ascended to the throne. During the Meiji restoration the law of succession was codified and women were excluded. Under that law, if the empress could not bear any son, the emperor could produce a male heir with court concubines. But in 1947, the succession law was amended and this practice was banned.
Reform-minded Koizumi had no choice therefore but to amend the law to align it with the rules prevailing in Western monarchies that allow for female succession.
But despite the widespread popularity he has gained with the electorate in five years as prime minister, Koizumi has had to face the opposition of political and cultural conservatives.
A group of 173 lawmakers signed an open letter arguing that the amendment bill, scheduled to be tabled in the Japanese diet in March, was too premature. The association of Shinto temples, which plays an important role in mobilising voters on behalf of the ruling party, threatened to withdraw its support from any candidate that backed the prime minister's initiative.
Hiroyuki Hosoda, chief cabinet secretary till a few months ago, and Ishihara Shintaro, governor of Tokyo, as well as certain sectors of the population, especially in the provinces, have also voiced strong opposition.
And so rumours that Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako might divorce became front page news. Prince Tomohito Mikasa, cousin to the current emperor, added a twist to the debate by expressing in an interview his support for a return to the use of concubines. Conservatives and rumour-mongers have even injected the spectre of Britain's Princess Diana into the debate.
Others have however rejected drawing any parallels. "There is very strong pressure against it and no precedent," said Miiko Kodama, a professor of mass communication at Musashi University. "It's not 100 per cent impossible, but it's unlikely."
What is more the relationship between Prince Naruhito and Masako is good. "The bonds between Masako, the Crown Prince and Aiko are very strong, so I think the media are just trying to write something interesting," said Hidehiko Kasahara, a professor at Keio University who specialises in the imperial family. "It is pure gossip and not a practical possibility."
Some experts say that speculation about Masako reflect a campaign by conservatives who dream of replacing her with a more tradition-minded wife who might yet bear Naruhito a son.
"I don't think there is any question but that the conservatives dislike Masako for all sorts of reasons, not simply because she didn't produce a male heir," said Kenneth Ruoff, the US-based author.
As late as early February Koizumi was determined to table the controversial amendment, but suddenly, on February 8, he shifted from his adamant stance about swiftly passing legislation to allow females and their descendants to become emperor, to calling for "caution" and saying that the timing of submitting the bill was "not an issue to be insistent about."
The announcement that Princess Kiko, wife of Prince Fumihito, who is the second son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, was pregnant pulled the rug under the PM's plan.
Should a boy be born in the fall then the issue is solved according to the existing succession law.
Conservatives welcomed the news with glee because now the proposed amendment need not be discussed, at least for some months. But the story of the 'sad princess' will continue. If her sister-in-law does bear a son, Masako will have to explain to her daughter Aiko, that her cousin is her superior because he can ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne.
Abe is set to succeed Koizumi as Liberal Democratic Party leader on Wednesday and then become Prime Minister. Many are hopeful he'll be able to work out Japan's main foreign policy tangle: relations with China and South Korea.