Japan's prince, revered and regimented

Tokyo - As an expectant Britain, gripped by royal baby fever, readies to welcome a future monarch, the young boy who carries the destiny of Japan's ancient imperial family lives a life much less examined.

Six-year-old Prince Hisahito is the only boy in four decades born into the world's oldest monarchy and will be entrusted with keeping alive a genealogical line traditionalists say can be traced back to a prehistoric goddess.

Unlike the House of Windsor, which lives life in full tabloid glare, the details of the lives of Japan's imperial family are scarcely discussed.

The prince is the son of Prince Akishino - second son of Emperor Akihito, 79, and Empress Michiko, 78 - and his wife, Princess Kiko, 46. Commentators say he leads a happy life, but one in which he is being prepared for his future role as emperor at the head of a staid and revered institution.

"I don't think Prince Hisahito plays computer games" like other boys his age, said Shinji Mr Yamashita, an ex-official of the Imperial Household Agency and now a journalist specialising in royal matters. "But he seems to be leading an unconstrained childhood."

Japan's emperor is the nominal head of state and sits at the apex of the indigenous Shinto religion.

The life of the royal family is one of regime and regimen. Their rare public appearances are carefully choreographed and recorded only by approved media.

One such moment in Hisahito's life was his fifth birthday when he went through rites that involved the donning of traditional flowing kimono trousers and having a symbolic haircut.

The ritual, to mark a birthday considered important in Japan, saw him standing on a "Go" checkboard, wearing the trousers for the first time in his life.

An aide, in the clothes of the Heian period (794-1185), combed his hair and then cut a few strands, before Hisahito jumped from the raised gameboard.

There are nods to modernity - he is the first royal child to go to a primary school other than the traditional Gakushuin, an institution built for the royals, while his sister, Princess Mako, 21, is a student at a liberal Christian university.

The middle child, Kako, 18, is more unconventional still - one of a five-piece dance troupe at high school with carefully curled hair.

But changes like this do not come from within, said Mr Yamashita, rather they are absorbed from the nation the family symbolises.

"The imperial family are not supposed to seek change themselves. They adjust to the state of the country and reflect the values of Japanese people of their time."

Until Hisahito's birth in September 2006, traditionalists had been gripped by fears for the future of a family they claim has ruled Japan for more than 2,600 years.

The heir to the throne, Crown Prince Naruhito, 53, and his wife, Crown Princess Masako, 49, had produced no son.

The crisis prompted the government to reluctantly consider reforms to the law that would allow Naruhito's daughter, Princess Aiko, 11, to ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne.

The debate was largely extinguished when Princess Kiko gave birth to Hisahito. On Naruhito's death, the throne will pass to his brother, who, in turn, will pass it to Hisahito.

In Britain, a change in the law means that whether Prince William's wife Catherine gives birth to a boy or a girl this month, the child will inherit the throne.

But Mr Yamashita, like many traditionalists, believes such a change in Japan is not possible. "If Princess Aiko were to take the throne, it would mean her child, whose father would come from an ordinary background, would be linked to the imperial family only through the maternal line," he said. "That has never happened in the past at least more than 1,000 years."

The debate has nothing to do with gender equality, he said. "This is simply the nature of the Japanese imperial family."

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