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Saturday, 1 December, 2001, 12:10 GMT
Japan joy at royal birth
Princess Masako and Prince Naruhito
The baby is the first in eight years of marriage
Japan's Crown Princess Masako has given birth to her first child, a girl, sparking celebrations across the country.

Television stations broke into normal programmes with the news as people gathered at the Imperial Palace gates to celebrate.

The Empress was in tears - she sent her congratulations to the couple

Hirofumi Oka, palace official
Emperor Akihito said he was "really happy" at the news while Empress Michiko, who was "in tears", sent her congratulations to the couple.

The BBC's Tokyo correspondent Charles Scanlon says the birth will increase pressure for a change in the law, which presently does not allow a female to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The government has ruled out any immediate constitutional change.

Mother and child fine

The baby was delivered at a hospital inside the grounds of the moat-ringed Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, weighing just over three kilograms (six pounds 12 ounces), the Imperial Household Agency said.

Tokyo residents celebrate the princess' birth
The news was celebrated throughout Japan

Crown Prince Naruhito was with Princess Masako in the hospital where the mother and baby are reported to be doing fine.

News of the birth was broadcast live on all major television networks and extra editions of newspapers were handed out on street corners.

Crowds of well-wishers gathered at the gates of the Imperial Palace to express their joy at the birth.

"I'm so relieved," said Kazuno Otsuka, a 57-year-old Tokyo resident. "So must be everyone else, including the emperor and empress and Crown Princess Masako's parents."

Spirits raised

Japan has been suffering under the burden of an economic slump and record unemployment and some hope the birth will lift the nation's spirits.

The birth of the princess is a symbol of the further prosperity of the imperial family, and it is the delight of the entire public to see this happy day

Prime Minister Koizumi

"It's a joyful thing. There's been nothing but bad news. I hope it means we will have a good year next year," said Tazuko Murakami from Tokyo.

The exclusive Tokyo neighbourhood of Senzoku, where Princess Masako lived before her marriage and where her parents still reside, was decorated with banners proclaiming "Celebration!" and traditional red paper lanterns were lit when the birth was announced.

Shops along "Princess Street", as the main shopping area is called, began selling commemorative goods, including a special rice wine sold in bottles marked with sweet-brier flowers, Princess Masako's imperial crest.

Delighted public

The Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi added his congratulations, calling the birth a delightful event for the Japanese people.

Emperor Akihito
By tradition, Emperor Akihito will choose the new baby's name

"The birth of the princess is a symbol of the further prosperity of the imperial family, and it is the delight of the entire public to see this happy day," he said.

Mr Koizumi and Japan's other top officials will visit the Imperial Palace on Sunday morning.

Already the child has had a taste of the tradition and ritual that goes with being royal - shortly after her birth court messengers placed a sword and purple silk robes by her pillow.

Sacred sword

The sacred Samurai sword, specially made by master blacksmiths and set in a crimson case, is symbolic proof that the child is a direct descendant of the royal dynasty.

It represents the sword which legend has it was given to the founder of the imperial family by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.

Japanese flags on Tokyo street
Flags have been put up in honour of the birth

Since the newborn is a girl she was also presented with a traditional "hakama", a pleated skirt.

When she is seven days old the baby princess will be ceremonially bathed in a cedar tub as passages from the ancient Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan) are recited.

The Nihon Shoki, which was completed in 720 AD, is the oldest official history of Japan.

Succession problems

Emperor Akihito will name the baby on the same day and a messenger will then deliver the news to her mother and father.

According to royal tradition, Japanese princess's names end in "ko", which means child.

Under present law the princess cannot ascend to the imperial throne, but Mr Koizumi ruled out any immediate change to the law saying "it is too early now to reach a conclusion."

Women have ruled before - the last to hold the title of emperor was Go-Sakuramachi (1762-1771), but by then the role had been reduced by the Tokugawa Shogunate to a purely figurehead role.

The last woman emperor with any real power was Koken who took the title Shotoku in her second reign beginning in 764.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"This is the news Japan's been waiting for"
See also:

09 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan's female emperors
30 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
The diplomatic princess
15 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan crown princess pregnant
10 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Ancient birth ritual for Japanese princess
01 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
No 'immediate' change to Japan succession
01 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Joy and concern for royal baby
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