Royal watchers in Japan are eagerly waiting for Crown Princess Masako to give birth to her first child, due any day. If it is a boy, the imperial infant will be second in line to the throne of the world's oldest monarchy.

Japan is poised to celebrate the birth of the first child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako.

The birth comes at a difficult moment for the country, with the economy mired in recession.

Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Temple University Japan, says the Japanese are most eager to know the child's gender. A boy would be undisputed heir to the 2,600 year-old Chrysanthemum Throne. The birth of a girl could spark significant legal and cultural changes, because current law bars a woman from taking the throne.

"They [the people] are very interested in the arrival of the royal baby if it is going to be a boy or girl," she says. " There is definitely a high sense of interest and curiosity."

Tokyo housewife Chieko Takahashi is like many Japanese waiting for the birth. "I do not think there is anything to be proud of in Japan except the royal baby," she says. "Japan has dealt with so much bad news lately, but I can truly be happy about the baby once it is born."

While the country waits, there is little fanfare in the Japanese media. Two years ago, reports of another royal pregnancy sparked a press frenzy.

But when Princess Masako suffered a miscarriage, the Imperial Household Agency, which attends to royal family matters, blamed the media for creating a commotion and unnerving her.

This time, the media has been subdued, but the birth is expected to be huge news that could re-ignite curiosity in the world's oldest royal line.

Kenneth Ruoff is a Japan scholar at Portland State University in the United States and is the author of "The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy".

He says the baby could open a new chapter in the relationship between the Japanese people and the throne. "It [the birth] symbolizes the continuation of the imperial line during the modern period," he says. " It is through the monarchy that people have defined what it means to be Japanese, so now they will continue to be able to do this."

The structure of Japan's modern monarchy goes back to 1868, when the emperor regained power after 600 years of domination by warlords.

The current emperor, Akihito, broke with tradition by marrying Michiko, a commoner. Crown Prince Naruhito also chose a bride with no aristocratic pedigree. Princess Masako was a diplomat before their marriage.

Professor Ruoff says the Prince and his wife symbolize Japan's growing internationalization, since both studied abroad and take an interest in world issues.

He says many Japanese will watch to see how they approach parenthood. "We have to wait and see what kind of a father Crown Prince Naruhito is going to be. Is he going to be very hands-on, which is in tune with changing gender roles in Japan? Are we going to see the Imperial Household Agency release a photo of him changing a diaper, which would be a dramatic representation of a hands-on father?" says Professor Ruoff.

Even if the couple chooses a modern style of child rearing, the baby's first days will be steeped in tradition.

Hours after the delivery, an imperial courtier will present the newborn with a samurai sword. The baby's first bath will be an ancient purification ritual, with musicians serenading outside the bathhouse.

And in keeping with ancient rules, the child's name will not be chosen by the parents, but by the grandfather, Emperor Akihito.