For days now, the Japanese public have been talking about a report that Crown Princess Masako was considering a divorce from Naruhito that would free her of the strictures of the Imperial Household Agency.
The report, in the Shukan Shincho magazine, has revived the debate over the fate of the world's oldest hereditary monarchy, particulary as it coincides with more concern about the health of Emperor Akihito.
The word was used carefully, the magazine couching its article with "ifs" and "reportedlys," but it was the appearance of another word that has sent shockwaves through Japanese society.
The 70-year-old emperor, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer in January last year, recently began hormone treatment for the same condition.
Naruhito, the emperor's 44-year-old son, is next in line to the Chrysanthemum throne, but he set the tabloids' tongues wagging in May when he launched an unprecedented attack on the agency for its supposed mistreatment of his wife.
Since marrying in 1993, the 40-year-old Masako has given birth to a daughter, Princess Aiko, but has not been seen in public for more than six months after being taken ill.
The speculation is that she has suffered some sort of nervous breakdown due to the pressure on her to produce a son and heir to Japan's men-only throne.
'Panda in a cage'
"It is time for the Japanese public to realise its imperial family is facing a crisis," said Naoki Inose, a commentator on society here and author of several books about the monarchy.
"On 13 October 1947, 11 branches of the family were deleted from the Imperial family, as if a tree were being trimmed," he said.
On the orders of the Allied Occupation forces, "they became ordinary Japanese citizens, leaving only four families", he said. "The fact that these 11 families were excluded means they lost the support system of inheritance and succession of the throne.
The role of Emperor Akihito (L) in
official affairs is largely symbolic
"If they had been retained in the imperial household, it would have been easy to find a son to assume the throne," he said. "At the time they didn't realise the risk because in 1959 Empress Michiko married the Emperor and had a healthy son."
Nearly half a century later, a dynasty that is, according to legend, descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu and the first emperor, Jinnu, who was born some 2600 years ago, is close to extinction.
"The Imperial Household Agency's task is to keep alive the myth of the royal family," says Inose, adding that they believe the crown princess' main job is to produce an heir.
"But I don't think she will have a successor if she is treated like a panda in a cage," he said, adding that, paradoxically, "with the pressure on her, the possibility of another baby is less likely".
Behind high walls
The schism between the princess and the agency has apparently led to the emergence of factions within the family, according to Toshiya Matsuzaki, who has written about the imperial family for the Jyosei Jishin weekly women's magazine for 45 years.
"Each side's courtiers - those for the emperor and those for the Crown Prince - think that they should put emphasis on their way of thinking," said Matsuzaki, who has built up an extensive network of contacts and a unique insight into what goes on behind the high walls of the palace.
"The emperor is not very well and he and the empress are not able to meet up with the prince and princess at all this summer because their courtiers have made up different schedules for them," he said.
"I don't think she will have a successor if
she is treated like a panda in a cage"
Toshiya Matsuzaki, writer on imperial family matters
"They are staying at different palaces at different times and that makes speaking to each other directly very difficult. There's a lack of communication."
And while the traditionalists in the agency have the upper hand for now, the Japanese public seems far more sympathetic to the princess than the institution that her husband said attempted to "negate Masako's career and her personality".
"I believe there is quite strong sympathy among ordinary people for the princess, especially since the prince's remarks on her condition and the problems that she has faced," said Matsuzaki.
"Many young women see Masako's present situation as the same as Princess Diana's in Britain."
One solution that is being considered is a change to the Imperial Household Law, based on Emperor Meiji's constitution of 1899, to allow an empress to sit on the throne. Such a change would be popular with the public, with the vast majority of Japanese expressing support for a female ruler, even if only as a figurehead.
"Changes to the Imperial Household Law would only be possible with the assent of the royal family, although 80% of the public is in favour of change," said Yoko Komiyama, shadow minister of justice in the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
Crown Prince Naruhito lashed out
against the pressure on his wife
There have been eight empresses in Japan's history, she pointed out, although the most recent was Go-Sakuramichi, who ruled between 1762 and 1771.
"There is some debate in Diet committees on this issue, but no firm plans for changes have yet been worked out," Komiyama said.
"However, there has been agreement across the parties that we should set up a research panel soon as the issue needs to be solved quite quickly because if we are to have Princess Aiko as a successor, she needs to be educated as to her future - although that could add more pressure to Princess Masako," she added.
"She is three years old and some of the very traditional thinkers believe that it is already too late to start educating her to be an empress," she said.
Age of equality
"My opinion is that succession should be to the first child, whether it is male or female, as this is an age of equality," Komiyama said.
The problem, she also believes, lies with the Imperial Household Agency.
"Recently, bureaucrats who almost at the end of their careers have joined the agency and they're not too concerned about the turmoil," she said. "They just try to avoid blame and don't push for changes, and that's not thinking in the best interests of the imperial family.
"The crown prince's remarks made people realise what Princess Masako has suffered in recent years," Komiyama added. "She has lost her career and the agency has instead just put pressure on her to have a successor to the throne."
A multilingual graduate of Harvard and Oxford, the princess was on the fast track for diplomats at the Japanese Foreign Ministry when she met the prince. They were married in June 1993.
The public is believed to be quite
sympathetic to Princess Masako
The clash between the princess and the agency is on several levels. She is a modern, educated and intelligent young woman who was clearly going places in Japan's male-dominated society.
Since her marriage, she has been reined in and leaks from the agency indicate she was scolded for expressing her own opinions and even having the temerity to walk in front of the prince on one of their early official engagements.
In another telling tale, at an official dinner for visiting heads of state, she was seated between then-presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin and chatted in fluent English and Russian with both men.
In Lesley Downer's book The Tale of Masako, a royal-watcher commented that she was going to be in trouble for this indiscretion. "The royal family are not ambassadors. She doesn't need to be able to speak English, she has interpreters for that. Her job is to smile."
Immediately after the crown prince's outburst in May, a spokesman for the agency emphasised, "We are making every effort to support his imperial majesty."
"Succession should be to the first child, whether it is male or female, as this is an age of equality"
Yoko Komiyama, shadow justice minister in the opposition Democratic Party of Japan
Officials refuse to comment on the princess' health, but they will no doubt be pleased to hear that few share the belief that she is seriously contemplating divorce.
"I don't think that what happened with Lady Diana in Britain will ever happen here," said Inose. "There's no possibility of a divorce."
But when Princess Diana married Prince Charles, few Britons could ever have imagined the eventual outcome of that marriage.