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 treatments.

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 imperial family.

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 a boy.

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 years."

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 co-workers.

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 government statistics.

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 Post 

Japan Princess returns to Royal Duties

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' condition."

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! magazine

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 life."

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 Asia Magazine

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 harp music.

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! Magazine

Princess's $1.3m wedding gift 'not enough'
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 Tokyo".

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 GUARDIAN   

Wedding bells next year for Japan's Princess Sayako

Princess Sayako, the only daughter of Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, will marry a 39-year-old official working with Tokyo's metropolitan government.

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 anonymity.

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 kingfishers.

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    SINGAPORE BUSINESS TIMES

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!

Princess' Prince Charming
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 couple'.

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 contender.

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 married.

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 STRAITS TIMES      

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 town planner.

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 throne.

She is the last of the emperor's three children to wed. - 2005   November 11 

Princess sheds 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 last.

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 dogs.

Those who have snared husbands and coast through life in material splendor on their husbands' paychecks are now labeled "winner dogs."

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 Angeles Times 

Canadian visit a break from cloistered existence
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 moats  

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 grandchildren.

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 political analyst.

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 religious rituals.

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 Prince.

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  


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