Tradition Afflicts a Modern Princess
Need to Produce Son Takes Toll on Japan's Royal Family
Japanese Crown Princess Masako and her husband,
Crown Prince Naruhito, play with Aiko, their only child, in a 2002 photo. At
center is Emperor Akihito
Within the aged cedar walls of the Imperial Palace, Princess Masako of Japan,
clad in a binding ceremonial kimono, watched as her father-in-law, Emperor
Akihito, presided over a Shinto blessing of the autumn harvest.
Fittingly held in the same lacquered shrine where she
wed Crown Prince Naruhito a decade earlier, the October event, as recounted by a
member of the Imperial Household Agency, was Masako's last palace function
before her withdrawal from official life in December. Since then, the
American-educated former diplomat has been grappling with a stress-related skin
disorder, mental exhaustion and -- by some accounts -- perhaps clinical
depression. Headlines and royal watchers portray her as a virtual hostage to her
foremost imperial duty: bearing a male heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the
oldest hereditary monarchy on Earth.
Masako's case has been seen in Japan as part of the
struggle for women's rights in the country's men-first culture. Reminiscent of
another storybook princess -- Diana, of Wales -- Masako's life has faded from
fable to misfortune. In her defense, her husband, the crown prince, made a
stunning break from imperial discretion last month, blasting the courtiers who
control most aspects of the couple's lives for having "nullified her career
as well as her character."
The prince's outburst came after the powerful Imperial
Household Agency blocked Masako's attempt to join her husband on an official
European tour last month so she could rest and improve her health. According to
sources familiar with palace events, the household courtiers hope the
40-year-old princess can regain her strength in part to undergo fertility
This week, the government acknowledged pressure on
Masako and the crown prince. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said during an
election debate that the royals "are overly busy with their official
duties. . . . They have no freedom." After that, Chief Cabinet Secretary
Hiroyuki Hosada said at a news conference that the imperial household "will
consider the matter."
The Imperial Household Agency, comprising bureaucrats
and servants to the emperor and his household, has been in existence since the
8th century. It is a government agency under the prime minister's office and
directs protocol and other functions related to the royal family. Its national
influence diminished after Japan's defeat in World War II. Nevertheless, its top
officials continue to wield considerable influence over the lives of the
Toshiya Matsuzaki, 66, a Tokyo-based commentator on
the imperial family who has followed them for 45 years, said Masako had
essentially become a prisoner: "There is a great outpouring of sympathy for
this woman, a modern woman, a woman educated in America and who is finding it
very difficult to adjust to the demands and peculiarities of Japanese imperial
court life. One has the feeling that she is suffering under the strain."
Masako, among other expectations, is under pressure
from the courtiers to bear a male heir.
Her disappearance from the public eye and the public
support for her plight have cast a spotlight on the secretive imperial family.
Since World War II, when Emperor Hirohito was
considered divine, the monarchy has become a symbolic institution of limited
importance to Japanese society. But the case of Masako -- a Harvard graduate
with a penchant for softball, world travel and intellectual debate -- has
brought unwelcome publicity. In a country where many youths do not even know her
husband's name, Masako has became a household word, particularly among women.
Eleven years after her marriage and 2 1/2 years after
she gave birth to the royal couple's daughter, Aiko, Masako is now portrayed by
close observers as defeated and distressed by limitations on her movements.
The joy of the imperial baby was celebrated in Japan
as desperately needed good news after a decade-long economic slump. But the
reaction was muted in the Imperial Household Agency -- the powerful courtiers
appointed by the prime minister's office. The simple fact remained: Aiko was not
In a recent open note to the nation, Masako -- who had
lived in Moscow, New York and the Boston area and who many expected to become a
notable ambassador or politician -- criticized her confinement. "Since the
wedding more than 10 years ago, I have made my utmost effort in an unfamiliar
environment under heavy pressure," she wrote. Her illness "was a
result of the accumulated exhaustion, mental and physical, of all those
Masako's struggle for more independence is intertwined
with a campaign to change male-succession laws so that Aiko can eventually
ascend the throne. Some traditionalists argue, however, that a male heir remains
key to preserving Japan's ancient imperial tradition.
"The issue with Masako and Aiko is really about
discrimination against women and women's rights, an issue that Japan finally
needs to confront as a modern society," said Yoko Komiyama, a national
legislator from Japan's largest opposition party, the Democratic Party. The
party's platform for upper house elections next month calls for allowing
empresses to reign.
Japanese women trail their U.S. and European
counterparts in the quest for equality, statistics show. Many Japanese women are
still expected to leave their jobs after marriage, especially after childbirth.
The percentage of women elected to the Diet, Japan's parliament, stands at 7.3
percent, roughly half the comparable percentage in the United States and almost
five times less than in Germany.
Worse, Japanese women say, are the little indignities.
Rural grandparents in particular still stress to a new wife the importance of
bearing a male son. During divorces in some families, it is not unusual for a
father to fight for custody of his sons, but not his daughters. Female office
workers still complain of having to serve coffee and tea for their male
But younger women in Japan, in particular, are
rebelling by delaying childbirth and having fewer children. That is a big
reason, experts say, for a big drop in the national birthrate, now among the
lowest in the world. This year, Japan's fertility rate fell to a record low of
1.29 children per woman -- compared with 2.13 in the United States, according to
Reiko Yokoi, 64, a housewife in Nagoya, posted a
message on a feminist Web site recently to express her anger at Masako's
treatment. In a telephone interview afterward, she lauded the crown prince for
rallying to the defense of his wife.
"I had to go through life with a man who felt he
could be bossy, who was very traditional about the role of a woman and who told
me that it wasn't feminine when I asked questions about politics or
economics," said Yokoi, whose husband is a retired business executive.
"That is no life for any young woman, and especially not for a modern woman
like Masako. It tears at my heart to think what they are doing to her."
Masako initially turned down Naruhito's marriage
proposal. Her friends were shocked when she changed her mind and accepted the
highly traditional role that would one day make her empress. Her marriage to the
baby-faced Naruhito also came over the objections of some in the court who felt
she had been tainted by her life in America.
As crown princess, Masako was forced to learn and
speak in a formal form of Japanese unique to the imperial family, walk a half
step behind her husband and learn hundreds of Shinto rituals for both public and
palace life. But bearing a son was always her primary duty. After eight years of
marriage, she gave birth to Aiko in December 2001.
Japan has had eight reigning empresses among 125
rulers in the imperial family genealogy, but scholars see them as temporary
solutions. Their children were not permitted to reign; they were followed by
their next closest male relatives. The Imperial House Act in 1889 prohibited
female succession altogether.
One palace reporter who works for a major Japanese
news outlet and who spoke on the condition of anonymity summed up the male-line
argument like this: "The imperial successor is like a racehorse; it doesn't
matter who the mother is."
The prince, however, in his recent and highly rare
public chiding of Imperial Household Agency leaders -- whom he cannot fire under
unspoken Japanese codes -- delivered an impassioned plea that many interpreted
as a call to allow Aiko to be his heir. The agency has indeed launched a study
into how the imperial rituals could be modified for a female monarch, according
to sources close to the agency.
But the courtiers and forces in Japanese politics are
still pushing for a continuation of the male-line system, and the pressure on
Masako has built. Last June, Toshio Yuasa, the agency's director general, told
the public that "frankly speaking, as grand steward of the Imperial
Household, I want them to have another child." Last December, he went a
step further, calling for Naruhito's younger brother, Prince Akishino, who has
two daughters, to attempt to have a third child.
Soon after that, Masako, her long hair cut into a bob,
her once-full cheeks drawn thin, withdrew from public life. She was briefly
hospitalized for stress-related shingles. She spent time with her mother at a
mountain retreat. But when she returned to Tokyo last April, she was still
deemed unfit for travel and her condition, according to Imperial Household
Agency officials, has not improved.
Her convalescence had been expected to last until the
spring, but she remains in seclusion, spending her days resting in central
Tokyo's Togu Palace -- a fortress-like 1960s study in Japanese minimalism with
flat, step-like roofs. It houses soothing art such as a silver screen of seven
flying cranes drawn by noted Japanese artist Kenji Yoshioka.
For a woman who herself once savored the freedom of
flying, it has become, many say, a gilded cage. -2004
June 24 By Anthony Faiola
Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report. Washington
Japan Princess returns to Royal
After nearly two years maintaining a low profile, Crown Princess
Masako reemerged into the public spotlight for an official visit to the World
Expo in Aichi, Japan. The 41-year-old wife of Crown Prince Naruhito was
smiling and relaxed on the one-day jaunt.
Nearly two years after withdrawing from public life
due to a stress-related disorder, Crown Princess Masako of Japan has resumed
limited official duties, making a day trip to the World Expo in Aichi province.
Accompanied by husband Crown Prince Naruhito, the crown princess travelled in a
bullet train to the exposition, located about 160 miles west of Tokyo.
At the Expo, she was pictured relaxed and smiling as she explored the
international showcase alongside her spouse. The royal palace made clear,
however, that Masako's recovery is an on-going process.
"This (engagement) does not mean the princess will perform duties
actively," said a representative, who revealed a nurse was travelling with
the crown princess as well. "Things will depend on the princess'
Masako, who was last seen greeting her in-laws, Emperor Akihito and Empress
Michiko, at a Tokyo airport, has not made an official excursion outside the city
since November 2003.
Dropping out of sight after a bout of shingles in December of that year, Masako
was diagnosed in July 2004 as suffering from a stress-related "adjustment
disorder" caused by "her special status as crown princess, problems
relating to her pregnancy and miscarriage, and her busy life".
Royal watchers had long speculated that the 41-year-old mother of one –
daughter Aiko was born in 2001 – was wilting under the pressures of not having
produced a male heir for the Chrysanthemum throne. -
2005 July 20 HELLO!
Japan's crown prince Naruhito recently stunned the
nation by confirming the country's worst-kept—though rarely
discussed—secret: his wife, Crown Princess Masako, is utterly miserable.
During an extraordinarily blunt press conference in
May, Naruhito indirectly blamed the Imperial Household Agency, the royal
family's ultra-traditional official minders, for "negating her career and
character." Last week the prince issued a written "clarification"
in which he effectively apologized for his comments, but the furor has focused
Japan's attention on its unhappy princess, a Harvard-educated former diplomat
whose fairy-tale life has become a nightmare. "She is really just a doll in
a doll case now," says Toshiya Matsuzaki, a magazine reporter who covers
the royal family. "She cannot take advantage of her career experience or do
what she wants. The palace has just proven too different from her former
Such strains, along with what some Japanese media see
as pressure to produce a male heir to the throne from those in the household
agency who see that as her only real function, seem to have pushed the princess
to the breaking point. After suffering a bout of stress-induced shingles this
winter, Masako has lived in virtual seclusion. It's widely assumed that Naruhito
and Masako would prefer to live like many modern European monarchs: basically as
regular citizens but with nicer houses, cool crowns and invitations to all the
best parties. And opinion polls indicate that most Japanese would approve of
changing the laws to allow Masako's two-year-old daughter, Princess Aiko, to
become Empress someday. But that doesn't seem to be the opinion of the household
agency, the powerful and secretive bureaucracy that controls every facet of the
royals' lives, including their finances, their (practically nonexistent) social
lives and even access to their phone lines.
Many royal watchers interpreted Naruhito's comments in
May as a play to loosen the household agency's grip on his family's
affairs—and see last week's "clarification," although the agency
denies it, as a punishment by a displeased bureaucracy that has no intention of
changing its ways. — 2004 June 21
by Hanna Kite/Tokyo TIME
In a clear break with tradition, Japan's Imperial
Household has released private home video footage of young Princess Aiko, the
only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako, frolicking with
her parents at the royal palace.
Aiko's mum, Crown Princess Masako, in seclusion for the past nine months as a
result of health issues, is seen happily frolicking with her young daughter in
the May footage Photo: © AFP
Shot by the crown prince in May, the intimate recording shows a laughing Aiko,
who will be three years old in December, reciting popular children's rhymes,
examining a picture book and playing with her mum as the two happily dance to
According to palace officials, Naruhito and Masako decided to release the home
movie, which was screened on all of Japan's major networks, due to strong media
and public interest.
In the video shot by her father Crown Prince Naruhito, little Aiko is shown
playing and reciting popular children's rhymes
Photo: © AFP
The release of the video is particularly unusual, as
Crown Princess Masako, suffering from an "adjustment disorder" –
characterized by an abnormal and excessive reaction to stress – has been seen
publicly just once in the past nine months. Early in September, the 40-year-old
royal, in seclusion at her home, briefly emerged to visit her in-laws, Emperor
Akihito and Empress Michiko, on a "purely private" excursion.
- 2004 September 24 HELLO!
Princess's $1.3m wedding gift 'not
For most newlyweds a tax-free gift of a million dollars would be more than
enough to embark on a new life together. Not so for Princess Sayako, the only
daughter of the Japanese emperor, who will receive a one-off gift of $1.3m
(about £735,000) of public money when she marries next month.
Although the sum was unanimously agreed yesterday by
the imperial household economic council, headed by the prime minister, Junichiro
Koizumi, some council members were reportedly unhappy. One unnamed member
reportedly said the amount was "not even enough to buy a house in
The princess is marrying Yoshiki Kuroda, 40, a civil
servant, on November 15. As soon as she does, the 36-year-old, popularly known
as Princess Nori, will relinquish her title and live as a commoner. The lump sum
is the maximum allowed by law, the imperial household said. She is said to be
nervous about life outside the palace, where she has been spared the media
attention directed at her sister-in-law, Masako, who is married to crown prince
Naruhito, next in line to the throne.
The announcement came as a conservative group began a
campaign to oppose moves to allow women to ascend the throne. Japan faces a
constitutional crisis because Naruhito and Masako have not produced a male heir.
A government panel is expected to recommend a change
to the law that could see Masako and Naruhito's three-year-old daughter, Aiko,
become the first empress for more than 200 years.
- 2005 October 7 by Justin McCurry in Tokyo THE
next year for Japan's Princess Sayako
Sayako, the only daughter of Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress
Michiko, will marry a 39-year-old official working with Tokyo's metropolitan
Press reports yesterday said the emperor and empress
had approved the marriage between the 35-year-old princess and Mr Yoshiki
Kuroda. The wedding will take place early next year.
The couple, who were classmates at Tokyo's elite
Gakushuin University, had planned to announce their engagement earlier this
month, an agency official said.
But they delayed the announcement out of respect for
victims of last month's powerful earthquake in northern Japan and devastating
typhoons across the country earlier this year, the official said on condition of
No formal word of their engagement is likely to come
until after late next month, he added.
Under Imperial Household Law, Princess Sayako - who is
also known as Princess Nori - will become a commoner after she is married.
She has two brothers: Crown Prince Naruhito, 44, and
Prince Akishino, 38. The last time a member of Japan's royal family became a
commoner through marriage was in 1983.
Princess Sayako is an ornithologist at an institute in
Chiba, near Tokyo, where she has conducted research on strains of bird flu and
Reports of the engagement come almost a year after
Princess Sayako's sister-in-law, Crown Princess Masako, quit her public duties
due to fatigue.
Court officials later said she was suffering from a
mental disorder brought on by the stress of adjusting to palace life. Her
husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, is the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. -
2004 November 15 AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS, REUTERS
Emperor tells of his sadness for Masako
Japan's Emperor Akihito has used his traditional
birthday address to break his silence over the crown princess' ongoing troubles.
Speaking from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the monarch, who has just turned 71,
also expressed his surprise at his son's outspoken remarks earlier in the year.
"It was the first time for me also to hear it," he said. "The
crown prince's words sparked speculation not based on facts and there were often
days when I was downcast."
The emperor was referring to an incident last May when Naruhito said his wife's
personality and career had been negated by the pressures of her role. Masako,
who had a promising career as a diplomat before marrying into the royal
household, has been suffering from a stress-induced illness for nearly a year.
But Akihito seemed to indicate that he and his wife had been largely unaware of
their daughter-in-law's difficulties: "It is regrettable if our respect for
the independence of the crown prince and crown princess, who maintain their own
independent household, has proved to be the cause of our failure to notice these
various problems," he said.
Some 14,000 people gathered in the Chowa Pavilion to hear the emperor make his
annual speech. The crowd waved flags and cheered "Banzai" – meaning
"live long" – as the ruler expressed his wish for Masako's swift
recovery. "I sincerely hope that in frankly conveying the hopes that they
now have, the crown prince and crown princess will be able to move towards the
realisation of these hopes and that this will bring them stability and
brightness in their life together," he affirmed.
- 2004 December 23 HELLO!
The serious bureaucrat who won Sayako's
heart has a passion for fast cars
Mr. Yoshiki Kuroda, the
39-year-old Tokyo government employee who captured the heart of Japan's retiring
Princess Sayako, is by all accounts calm and serious in disposition.
Friends of the two agree that they are 'a matching
Governor Shintaro Ishihara described him as
'refreshing, with a touch of humour' after their first meeting last week.
But the always prim and proper Kuroda also has a wild
side to him that manifests itself in a passion for racing cars.
Mr Kuroda whizzes around town in a British sports car
- a dark green Lotus Elise he reportedly bought for some five million yen
(S$79,800) brand new.
Although he is said to be well known among sports car
enthusiasts here, none claim to know his links to Japan's imperial family.
Even his colleagues say they were astounded to learn
in last Sunday's Asahi Shimbun daily that 'Kuro-chan' (Kuroda's nick-name) was
getting married to the third child of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
But Mr Kuroda, a bank employee for nine years before
turning public servant in 1997, has been on the radar screens of imperial
watchers for over a decade ago, ever since the search began for potential
suitors for the Princess, 35, who is better known among the Japanese as
Nori-no-miya (Princess Nori).
His 'rivals' then were all scions of distinguished
former aristocratic families. Mr Kuroda, who can only claim a link to Japan's
aristocratic past through the wife of an uncle, was by no means the leading
But as a classmate of the Princess' second brother,
Prince Akishino, he had been acquainted with imperial family members since his
primary school days.
And two years ago, virtually all the other potential
suitors were already married.
The official word on how Mr Kuroda and Princess Sayako
met and fell in love will probably have to wait until their engagement is
formally announced next month
But according to reports, he once again came into
contact with the Princess in spring last year through her brother.
The courtship apparently began to blossom in the
winter. The couple met frequently at the Prince's home and opened up their
hearts to each other on the telephone and through e-mail.
The question now is how Mr Kuroda, who takes home an
estimated 300,000 yen every month, will continue to support both his interests
in sports cars and antique cameras, and also provide his wife of royal parentage
with the comforts of life.
But he may not need to worry too much about money.
The Princess, who becomes a commoner upon marriage, is
said to be bringing with her some 300 million yen in personal assets, including
about 150 million yen she is entitled to receive under the law when she gets
The wedding is expected to take place next spring -
'before the groom turns 40', as one wag puts it. Mr Kuroda's birthday falls on
April 17; his wife-to-be's is one day later. -
2004 November 21 by Kwan Weng Kin SINGAPORE
Japan princess says goodbye to royal
family prior to becoming a commoner
Princess Sayako, the only daughter of Emperor Akihito
and Empress Michiko, paid respects to her imperial ancestors and bade farewell
to her parents in rituals ahead of her wedding to a commoner next week.
Clad in a 12-layered traditional kimono, Princess Sayako visited three shrines
in the Imperial Palace grounds that are dedicated to legendary Japanese gods and
emperors of the past.
Sayako, 36, later met the emperor and empress to bid
them farewell ahead of Tuesday's wedding to 40-year-old Yoshiki Kuroda, a Tokyo
Her mother, Empress Michiko, urged her to be a good
citizen and to cherish her family.
The farewell ritual is likely to have been an
emotional one for a mother and daughter who are known to be close.
Empress Michiko said last month that she would miss
support from Princess Sayako, nicknamed "Our Miss Never Mind", when
she leaves the imperial household.
Princess Sayako, known informally as Nori, will leave the imperial family upon
her marriage, and the couple's children will be ineligible to inherit the
She is the last of the emperor's three children to wed. -
2005 November 11
loser status with perfect match
She was the princess
without the fairytale romance, the one in family photographs conspicuously
without a partner or children. And as she reached her mid- thirties, still
living with her parents, those who track the comings and goings of Japan's
imperial family assumed she would always be the emperor's spinster daughter
She was the princess without
the fairytale romance, the one in family photographs conspicuously without a
partner or children. And as she reached her mid- thirties, still living with her
parents, those who track the comings and goings of Japan's imperial family
assumed she would always be the emperor's spinster daughter.
Now, though, those royal-watchers can get out their
handkerchiefs to dab tears of happiness. Princess Sayako, known officially by
the single honorific Norinomiya and more commonly as Nori, is getting married at
Today, Norinomiya will become Mrs Kuroda. In a modest
ceremony by royal standards before about 150 guests at a Tokyo hotel, the
princess, 36, will exchange vows with Yoshiki Kuroda, 40, a bureaucrat with the
Tokyo metropolitan government.
Friends describe him as a shy man who has a passion
for fast cars but carries no baggage from past love affairs - just the sort of
character the low-key imperial family and their deeply conservative minders in
the Imperial Household Agency prefer.
The princess' marriage is a rare act of downward
social mobility. Though the groom comes from a well-connected Tokyo family, he
has no royal blood. Once Nori is married, she will officially be a commoner.
But she will be a "loser dog" no more. The
phrase - describing women who chose careers over marriage and now, still single
in their thirties, face a life crisis - was coined by author Junko Sakai in the
massively successful 2004 book Howl of the Loser Dogs.
One in four Japanese women in their early thirties are
unmarried, and Sakai contends they waver emotionally between relief at their
independence and lament for what they might be missing.
Nori was the "last big loser dog," according
to Sakai, who counts herself as a member of the sorority.
The princess worked as a researcher at the Yamashina
Institute of Ornithology, studying 19th century European lithographs of birds.
And she had publicly defended single, working women in
a society where only a small percentage have been able to rise above the station
of office help.
Instead of regarding thirtysomething, single working
women as trailblazers, many women in their twenties pity the so-called loser
Those who have snared husbands and coast through life
in material splendor on their husbands' paychecks are now labeled "winner
Sakai said she believes most Japanese women felt sorry
for Nori because of her single status.
Nori and her groom first met at university in the
1980s and got reacquainted in 2003 at a tennis party hosted by the princess'
brother, who is a friend of Kuroda's.
The Japanese media does not pry too deeply into the
private lives of the royals and their mates. Kuroda, who also likes photography,
is supposedly not very good at tennis. And he will live with his widowed mother
until his wedding day.
"He is even-tempered and earnest," Yasuaki
Kitajima, a fellow car hobbyist, told the weekly Shukan Bunshun. "He never
changes, no matter how much he drinks. He is a knowledgeable man and sometimes
shows a deep sense of humor."
Since their engagement was announced in May, the
princess has been preparing for civilian life. She has thrown herself into
learning to cook - curries and stew, the weekly gossip magazines say.
Nori also accepted a best wishes wedding check of
US$1.2 million (HK$9.36 million) from the government in order to maintain
"a decency appropriate to her birth."
Now she appears poised to disappear into the anonymity
of married life. In a shot that surely reverberated among the legions of loser
dogs, Nori quit her job after getting engaged.
"If I met a man who is 40 and lives with his
mother, I would back off a bit," said Sakai. "But the princess lives
with her parents, too. I think they are just right for each other." -
2005 November 15 Los
Canadian visit a break from cloistered
Emperor and Empress have spent most of the
past two decades living inside the sprawling grounds of Tokyo's Imperial Palace,
separated from the world around it by an eight-metre-high stone wall and a dozen
When Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress
Michiko land in Canada tomorrow, it will be a rare and nostalgic break from life
in what must be the world's biggest bubble.
The couple have spent most of the past two
decades living a largely cloistered existence inside the sprawling grounds of
Tokyo's Imperial Palace, a picturesque but remote world that is separated from
the city around it by an eight-metre-high stone wall and a dozen moats.
Life among the 114 hectares of forests and
carefully manicured gardens is a splendid isolation, but isolation nonetheless.
Given a rare peek inside the bubble, what strikes one first is the stillness and
silence that is life in this forbidden city.
There are few cars, and nary a honk. Tourists
can visit only a small corner of the densely forested pre-industrial city within
a city that is the Imperial Gardens. The palace itself is strictly off limits to
the public for all but two days a year. Nor do the Emperor and Empress often
venture into the world beyond the moats and walls that surround them.
“They very seldom go into the city, if you
mean the shopping areas and things like that,” said Makato Watanabe, a close
adviser of the Emperor and a veteran member of the Imperial Household Agency,
the publicity-shy team of some 1,200 mandarins that in effect manages the lives
and public image of Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and their children and
Mr. Watanabe's office is in the IHA building,
with a large window that fittingly gives him a view of the comings and goings at
the white-walled, green-roofed palace next door. Though Mr. Watanabe, a
charming, old-fashioned man who hastens to put on a tie before sitting down to
chat with a foreign reporter, acknowledges the need for the Imperial Family to
evolve and become more open, another member of the IHA once boasted to a
reporter that nine out of 10 requests from the Imperial Family – some on
matters as mundane as wanting to visit a bookstore – were rejected.
It's a situation that has caused more than
one of the Emperor's relatives to go stir-crazy, and has led to accusations in
the Japanese media that both the Imperial Family and the Imperial Household
Agency are out of touch and heading towards irrelevance.
“I dare say that youngsters have not much
interest in or knowledge of the Imperial Family's background and history, or
even the Emperor as a symbolic ruler,” said Takao Toshikawa, a Tokyo-based
As his reign enters its twilight, Akihito is
an Emperor without an empire, a ruler without any formal powers even in Japan,
and with little control over even his private life.
The 125th Emperor of Japan, he is the first
to have never claimed any divinity, and the first who actually has to pay
attention to what the people think, the result of a post-Second World War
constitution – written under American supervision – that forced Akhito's
father, Hirohito, to renounce his status as a living god and place the sovereign
power that had rested with his family for hundreds of years into the hands of
the Japanese people.
“The constitution is as clear as day. The
future of the monarchy rests on the will of the people. They know that if the
people ever turn on them, the institution could be abolished,” said Kenneth
Ruoff, author of The People's Emperor: Democracy and the Japanese Monarchy
. “They have to keep their poll numbers up.”
Naysayers aside, under Akihito the poll
numbers have remained high, with one recent survey suggesting that some 80 per
cent of Japanese approve of the Imperial Family. The Emperor's backers politely
point out that the Imperial Family is a badly needed rock of stability in a
country increasingly beset by economic crisis and political turmoil.
Indeed, Akihito and Michiko will leave a
country hit hard by the global economic crisis and an absence of leadership.
Unemployment and homelessness are on the rise, and the Emperor's first task upon
his return will likely be one of his few remaining political duties, to dissolve
parliament and send the country into an election campaign that will likely end
with the swearing-in of Japan's fifth prime minister in three years.
“Prime ministers change almost every year
in Japan, and there have been very rough economic changes and so forth. People
feel very uneasy about the present and future. The Imperial Family, which has a
history of perhaps 1,300 or 1,400 years – people look to them as a sign of
stability,” Mr. Watanabe said, referring to the Emperor's lineage, which some
argue can be traced back to 660 BC. For centuries, the Imperial Family claimed
to be direct descendents of the sun goddess.
Family matters are nearly as complicated.
Some observers detect a rift between Akihito's oldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito,
and his brother Prince Akishino. Naruhito has been scolded by both his brother
and the IHA for visiting his father too infrequently.
Some would like to see Naruhito decline the
throne when the time comes in favour of his younger brother, who conveniently
also has the son – Japanese law dictates that only males can inherit the
Chrysanthemum Throne – that Naruhito does not. Rumours of a breakdown have
followed Naruhito's wife, the Harvard-educated Princess Masako, who gave birth
to one daughter, but came under enormous pressure to produce a male heir.
Concerned for his family's future, Emperor
Akihito is said by his doctors to be suffering from “mental agony.” His old
confidant, Mr. Watanabe, admits that “physically, I see the signs of long
years of hard work” on the Emperor. The IHA announced earlier this year that
it would cut back the Emperor's official schedule and have him attend far fewer
Thus, the 12-day trip to Canada that begins
tomorrow will be a trip back to perhaps a slightly more carefree time for
Emperor Akihito, who first visited the country in 1953 as a 19-year-old Crown
On his way to attend the coronation of Queen
Elizabeth II, Akihito travelled by sea to San Francisco, then to Victoria, where
he spent the night at the residence of the lieutenant-governor of British
Colombia. He then took the train across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto. Now
75, he'll be retracing some of that journey, this time with the 74-year-old
Empress Michiko at his side, during a trip that begins in Ottawa, then continues
to Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria.
“Canada has special meaning for this
Emperor, and perhaps for the Imperial Family, because Canada was the first
country he visited overnight in his whole life,” Mr. Watanabe said.
“He still remembers that trip very well. It
was the first overseas trip he made, at 19.”
When the nostalgic tour – which also
includes a stopover in Hawaii – is over, it's back to the life's work of
reinventing what a Japanese Emperor is and can be.
“The present Emperor has started with a new
role. He has been exploring that day after day. For him, it's not a theoretical
question; it's a question of what he does if something happens today,” said
Mr. Watanabe, a former ambassador to Jordan who speaks the English he learned
decades ago from a Canadian missionary in Tokyo.
“Basically, he has accepted that fate, but
whatever he does can get criticized from the right, from the left, by
traditionalists, by feminists. In that way, this has been rather a difficult
voyage through rough seas, but I think he has survived.”
- 2009 July 2 THE
GLOBE & MAIL