updated 1/25/2005 7:57:12 PM ET 2005-01-26T00:57:12

The head of a government panel debating revisions to Japan’s imperial succession law said Tuesday that public opinion, which strongly supports allowing a woman to reign, would be the most important factor in their discussions.

Japan’s royals are facing their most serious succession crisis in centuries, with no boy born to the imperial family since the 1960s and the current law barring women from ascending the ancient Chrysanthemum Throne.

Increasing pressure to amend the succession law prodded the government to announce last month that it was setting up a 10-member panel to examine legal revisions.

After its first meeting Tuesday, the panel’s chairman, Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, acknowledged the delicacy of overhauling the world’s oldest monarchy, which holds no political power but carries immense symbolic weight in Japan.

“It is an extremely difficult issue,” Yoshikawa told reporters, calling it a historical, societal and practical problem that could affect Japanese society “hundreds of years from now.”

“The most important premise of these discussions is the will of the people, public opinion,” he said.

Yoshikawa refused to disclose details of the panel’s agenda, including what changes were being considered, saying that was yet to be decided.

Differing options surface
Among the questions that have surfaced are whether the first-born child should hold primary claim to the throne or if a male child born later should take precedence.

Japan’s Mainichi newspaper on Tuesday reported other options purportedly being considered include limiting amendments to the succession law to several generations to get through the immediate succession crisis, and reinstating branches of the imperial family dissolved after World War II to find a male successor.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asked the panel to compile a set of recommendations by this fall. A bill is expected to be submitted to parliament by next year.

“The emperor is the symbol of our country, and the stable succession of that position is something that affects the fundamentals of our nation,” Koizumi told the panel.

Koizumi stays mum
Koizumi, who has previously expressed support for a reigning empress, withheld his personal opinions.

“I don’t think I should say what I want to do, or what I think should be done,” until the panel concludes its discussions, he said.

Crown Prince Naruhito, 44, and his younger brother have three daughters between them, but no sons. Unless the law is changed, the prospect looms of no one to take over.

Recent polls have placed public support for a reigning empress at above 80 percent. A survey by public broadcaster NHK this month found that 34 percent believed the first child should be the primary successor versus 28 percent saying a male child should take precedence.

Yoshikawa, a former president of Tokyo University, sits on the panel with former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, a former Supreme Court judge and others from Japan’s business, government and academic circles.

Japan last had a reigning empress almost 200 years ago. Eight women have occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne in its 1,500 years of documented history and none of their children succeeded them.

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