Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to review a law barring women from ascending the millennia-old Chrysanthemum Throne, officials said Wednesday.
"Personally, I think an empress is fine," Koizumi reportedly said, becoming the first prime minister to openly express support for the idea of a reigning woman.
It may be time: A male heir hasn't been born in Japan in more than three decades.
Initial reaction on the street was positive.
"I think women should be able to be emperor too," said Katsuko Oyama, who was leaving her restaurant near the posh Ginza shopping district. "I'd welcome that."
Koizumi -- who has three sons but no daughter -- is creating a panel within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to look at changing the imperial succession law, party official Okiharu Yasuoka said.
But don't expect a big change soon.
Talk of forming a panel to discuss reforms often elicits groans in Japan, evoking images of nearly endless discussions followed by conclusions that need to be rubber-stamped by several committees before they finally see daylight in Parliament.
And Japan's imperial family is so drenched in tradition that the mere suggestion of change is nearly taboo.
The world's longest unbroken imperial line is so old that its origins are steeped in legend. Japan's indigenous Shinto religion has it that the Sun Goddess gave birth to the first emperor, Jimmu, 2,600 years ago.
Before enthronement, the new emperor performs a centuries-old rite that involves donning white robes, entering a secret chamber glowing with lantern light and communing with the Shinto gods.
Few details have been divulged about the ceremony, but it is known that the chamber contains a bed. Scholars say it is used for an ancient sex rite with the Sun Goddess, although the Palace officially denies that.
It is the same Shinto religion that prohibits women from entering the ring of Japan's ancient sport of sumo wrestling because they are considered impure.
Despite the challenges, most Japanese appear receptive to the idea of having an empress.
Many people feel sympathy for the intense pressure Crown Princess Masako is under to produce a male heir. The Harvard-educated former diplomat wed Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, but the imperial couple has yet to have a child. The younger prince, Akishino, has two daughters.
Less than a month ago, the palace announced that Masako might be pregnant, but there's been no confirmation yet.
There are precedents for women to ascend the imperial throne.
Japan's first empress, Suiko, began her reign in 655. Seven more women succeeded to the throne over the next century and a half.
A nearly 1,000-year drought followed, until Empress Meisho, number 109 i the legendary imperial line, took the throne in 1629. Japan's last reigning empress was Go-Sakuramachi, who died in 1771.
The law that prevents women from reigning was only enacted in the postwar era, on May 3, 1947.
Still, changing it promises to be a touchy issue, especially with fierce resistance expected from Japan's right-wing fringe. Top officials took a cautious stance.
"I think that is something that could be realized in the future," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said. "But there is the question of tradition involved, and I have not thought very deeply about it."
By Joji Sakurai
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