4 SEPTEMBER 2003
Twenty-one-month-old Princess Aiko of Japan made her first visit to the home of her maternal grandparents this week. Accompanied by her mum, Crown Princess Masako, the toddler was warmly welcomed by Hisashi and Yumiko Owada at their Tokyo residence.
The release of the intimate photos of the visit was further evidence of the new openness of approach adopted by the Japanese royal family in recent times.
Although Japan's laws of succession do not currently allow a female to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne, Aiko's birth sparked much debate on the subject. Her parents had been trying to conceive for eight years before Crown Princess Masako suffered a miscarriage in 1999, making Aiko's arrival in 2001 - after the princess was treated by one of Japan's leading fertility specialists - an especially joyous occasion.
The fact remains, however, that no male heir has been born into the family for nearly four decades, leading to the subject of female accession becoming even more pressing.
"This is a politically sensitive issue, so we can't publicly admit we are researching the possibility," a senior palace source has said. "But as a matter of fact we are, and we would be negligent not to."
Should Crown Prince Naruhito, 43, and 39-year-old Masako not have a male offspring in the next few years, perhaps resulting in constitutional change, it would transform the status of women in one of the world's most conservative societies.
If she does end up ascending to the throne, Aiko would be the first Empress in two and a half centuries to reign over the world's oldest hereditary monarchy.