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10 December 2001

One more, one less, who cares?

Even an imperial birth has failed to excite Japan or its depressed economy. Victoria James reports

By Victoria James

The baby’s sex – a girl – is likely to be the first of many predictions about Japan’s imperial newborn that are proved wrong. In the months leading up to the birth, the consensus was that the child would be male. A women’s magazine crowed: “So many reasons why it must be a boy!” – citing the recent redecoration (in pale blue) of a room at Crown Prince Naruhito’s Akasaka Palace. Political pundits noted that the debate over female succession had died down. And there were rumours that the child would be Japan’s first test-tube emperor, a gender-selected product of fertility treatment.

Until the news broke, shortly after the birth at 2.43pm on 1 December, the nation seemed convinced that it would soon have an heir to the world’s oldest monarchy, now in its 125th generation. With the birth of a girl, debate is likely to revive over amending the 1948 constitution, which bars females from the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Boy or girl, the baby’s birth was cause for celebration in a country which, just a week before, had learnt that unemployment had reached a record high of 5.4 per cent, and that every citizen would have to bear an increase in national healthcare costs. No wonder, then, that the media presented the imperial birth as the answer to all Japan’s problems.

Take the economy. In April, one expert described the news of Crown Princess Masako’s pregnancy as having “the same ability to revive the economy as a 20trn yen [£113bn] emergency stimulus package”. The chief of the Japan Chamber of Commerce declared that the announcement “may help brighten the gloom”.

Had reality set in by the time of the birth? Evidently not. Interviewed after the happy event, Keiichi Matsumura, a researcher affiliated with the leading Dai-ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company, declared that the birth could lead consumer expenditure to exceed usual levels by approximately 14trn yen (£79bn).

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The basis of his conclusion? A surge of generosity on the part of Japanese grandparents, in which they lavished on their grandchildren the equivalent of 1 per cent of their assets, worth a combined 1,400trn yen (£7.9trn).

Shops and businesses anticipated a surge in sales all round. The chairman of the Japan Department Stores Association, Kazumasa Koshiba, told the Kyodo news agency: “I hope this happy national event will be an opportunity for the whole country to move in a better direction.” Some retailers benefited more than others; when Princess Masako’s pregnancy was first announced, share prices surged for babycare-related companies such as Uni-Charm, which makes disposable nappies, and Kimuratan, a babywear manufacturer whose valuation soared by more than 50 per cent.

That response was based on the prediction that Japan’s flagging birth rate would rise, too. A boost in birth rates would give more long-term cause for optimism in a country where, it was announced in June, the over-65s now outnumber those under the age of 15 by roughly 3.5 million.

Grounds for this optimism certainly exist – in the 12 months following the marriage of Masako Owada and the Crown Prince in 1993, the number of Japanese newborns swelled by 50,000 above the anticipated level, briefly reversing a decade-long fall in the birth rate. (Faced with worsening economic conditions, couples are increasingly opting to have just one child.) At 37, meanwhile, Princess Masako has become the poster girl for older mothers – until recently, hospitals labelled women over 35 as maruko, or “getting on a bit”.

Just one more thing.

Say it softly, but . . . few people actually care about the royal birth. Pictures from the palace grounds on the night following the birth may well have shown a festive crowd swinging lanterns and cheering: “Banzai!” But photojournalists – and spin-doctors at the imperial household (who have been performing their role for millennia) – are as adept as a Hollywood director on a budget at making a handful look like a crowd when there is a good story at stake. Standing under the palace walls that night, we numbered not more than a few thousand – out of a city whose population tops eight million.

Those around me, like the 50 or so well-wishers I had seen that morning in front of the Akasaka Palace waiting to sign a book of congratulations, were, almost without exception, of pensionable age. Once you had counted the number of staunch nationalists and emperor worshippers (a small group had earlier bowed and chanted by the palace’s Sakuradamon Gate), the number of bona fide members of the public was small indeed.

Perhaps the young folk were marking the occasion in the way they knew best – shopping. Yet in the smart streets of Ginza, just a few blocks away from the palace, things were no busier than when I had hunted for Christmas gifts the previous weekend. Many passers-by paused to admire the congratulatory display in the window of the Mikimoto pearl boutique, but there was little conspicuous consumption – and no sign at all of the commemorative goods (towels, lunch boxes, bargain “lucky bags”) promised by the press.

Footsore after a day spent searching for the celebratory party, I returned home to find one in full swing next door. My neighbour, Moe-chan, invited me in; but she and her friends weren’t popping corks over the new princess, merely having a college reunion.

“For our generation,” explained one 26-year-old guest, an executive at a computer company, “the imperial family is just a symbol. It’s not part of our lives and it doesn’t mean anything to us. One more, one less – who cares?”

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