Japan's Princess Kiko is pregnant

Japan's Imperial Household Agency announced Tuesday that Princess Kiko is pregnant, raising the possibility of the first male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 40 years. The announcement comes as the government is considering a plan to allow a woman to assume the throne for the first time in two centuries in a bid to avert a succession crisis. Kiko's husband, Prince Akishino, is second in line to the throne.

Agency chief Shingo Haketa said that both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were delighted at the news of Kiko's pregnancy. Haketa did not give further details. The princess had an ultrasound Tuesday morning and felt the fetus move, Kyodo News agency reported, adding that she is expected to give birth in September or October, citing unnamed agency sources.

The news prompted applause at a Parliamentary committee meeting attended by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi earlier in the day as Japanese media began reporting on the pregnancy hours before the agency announcement. "We'd like to celebrate the news with the people," said Katsuya Okada, a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Kiko, 39, the wife of Prince Akishino, has two daughters, aged 11 and 14. Crown Prince Naruhito, first in line to the throne after his father Akihito, has one daughter with his wife, Crown Princess Masako. The lack of a male heir has prompted the government to consider changing a 1947 law so that Naruhito's 4-year-old daughter, Aiko, could one day take the throne. The law at present allows only males to reign.

Koizumi called for early consideration of the popular measure, despite criticism by conservatives and the new prospect of a male heir being born. "If we wait, it is uncertain that a boy may or may not be born," he told lawmakers.

"To ensure the stable continuity of Japan's imperial family, we cannot put the issue off any longer," he continued. "It is desirable that parliamentary debate is carried out in a calm, careful manner at the earliest opportunity." The proposal, however, has ignited a wide-ranging debate in Japan.

Conservative opponents argue that allowing a woman to reign, and pass the throne to her offspring, would corrupt a millennia-old Japanese tradition, which they say is based on the maintenance of the male lineage. Under those restrictions, a son delivered by Kiko would provide a suitable male heir, since he would carry the "imperial" Y-chromosome from Akishino, reports the AP.