The Chrysanthemum Throne – Part IV: The Princess and the “Grey Men” [2004]

Written by Pandora’s Box [my old writing alter-ego]
Tuesday, 12 October 2004

Life changed almost overnight for Japan’s new Crown Princess. A rising young star in Japan’s diplomatic corps, Masako gave up her career when she married Prince Naruhito. She did not, however, give up any of her hopes. Since childhood, she’d dreamt of being a diplomat and working in the international arena. Her marriage and her new role wouldn’t change that, or so she thought.

Masako took to heart the Prince’s pledge to protect her “forever with all his might” and thought his protection would let her become a sort of “royal envoy.” She thought she’d be permitted to travel abroad to promote international goodwill and improve ties between Japan and other nations. In fact, as the Crown Prince himself noted, she considered such trips as being crucial to her role as a member of the Imperial Family. She also believed –quite logically — that her training, background and education would make her an ideal candidate to serve as a roving, royal ambassador.

Unfortunately, nothing could have been further from the IHA’s plans and expectations for her. Leaks from the palace revealed that the IHA had rebuked her “for expressing her opinions and for even having the temerity to walk in front of the prince on one early official engagement.” http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=553232004

“In another telling tale, at an official dinner she was seated between then-presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin and chatted in fluent English and Russian with both.” (Lesley Downer, The Tale of Masako, excerpted at http://www.ghatravel.com/html/masako.html) Instead of seeing her as brilliant, she got in trouble for her “indiscretion.” Id. According to one royal watcher, “[t]he 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.” Id.

Her job was also to breed. Preferably profusely, and preferably just boys. Since 1965, every child born into the Imperial Family has been a girl. And only a boy may inherit the throne. In the old days, Japan’s male-only succession rule wasn’t a problem because the Emperor could have concubines, thus increasing the chances for a male heir. The system was abandoned in 1947, presumably under the influence of American policy planners who reformed the Imperial House. While abolishing the concubine system, the policy planners kept the male-only succession rule codified in the 1889 Imperial Household Law and made it a formal part of the new 1946 Constitution.

Thus, under the terms set forth in Article 3, only Emperor Akihito’s two sons — 44-year-old Naruhito and his brother, Prince Akishino, 38 — are in line to succeed before the throne reverts to an elderly uncle and cousins who are likely to die before the two princes. Even without the problem of their age, “for the succession to move sideways, for either of these to become emperor, would be unthinkable to the Japanese people.  It would spark a major succession crisis and might even bring about the end of the imperial dynasty.” Id.

If Masako’s “job” was to produce a male heir, then, by the IHA’s standards, she wasn’t doing it very well. She didn’t become pregnant once throughout the first 6 years of her marriage. Her difficulties must have been difficult enough to bear on an emotional and personal level but the humiliation she suffered at the hands of those around her must have made things unbearable:

According to well-placed palace insiders, every month since her marriage the princess has been summoned to the imperial presence.  Using the politest and most formal of language, the emperor enquires as to whether she has had a period that month.  Each time she has had to lower her head in shame and confess that, sadly, she has failed yet again to conceive a child. They also point out that she has effectively been grounded until she does her duty and produces an heir.

Id.

Finally, in December 1999, the Palace announced with much relief that Masako had become pregnant. Unfortunately, a few weeks into her pregnancy, Masako suffered a miscarriage. Soon after that, Masako reportedly began fertility treatments. She became pregnant and, in 2001, gave birth to Princess Aiko.

Japan went wild; the IHA did not. Quite simply, Aiko was not a boy. So, the pressure grew on Crown Princess Masako to have another child. However, the prospects did not look good. Masako was almost 40, an age when it becomes much harder for a woman to become pregnant. She also had a past miscarriage in her history and 11 years of marriage had yielded only one child. The IHA didn’t care; it wanted Masako to keep trying for a boy and it wanted her to do so at once. In 2003, the head of the Agency, Toshio Yuasa, turned up the pressure by announcing his views publicly: “Frankly speaking, as grand steward of the Imperial Household, I want them to have another child.”

However, Yuasa was not resting all his hopes on Masako. In December 2003, he went so far as to state the Crown Prince’s younger brother, Fumihito, and his wife, Kiko, should try to have a son, in addition to the two daughters they already have. http://babyurl.com/1sV449 Prince Fumihito treated this arrogant demand with all the respect it deserved; he ignored it.

Unfortunately, it was the last straw for Masako. Just a few weeks later, she broke out with shingles, an agonizing ailment where the nerves become infected and large blister-like eruptions explode all over the skin. The condition is brought on by stress.

Crown Princess Masako had to be hospitalized for a month and, upon her release, announced that she was giving up all public duties due to “accumulated exhaustion, mental and physical.” With that, she vanished from the public eye.

For the next five months, there was little news about the Princess. Then, on May 10, 2004, Crown Prince Naruhito held a press conference concerning his upcoming trip to Europe. Press conferences by members of the Imperial Family are not a frequent event so the media gathered in full force. Nonetheless, no-one expected the Prince to discuss anything significant. Undoubtedly, they thought the conference was called to discuss the Prince’s schedule and his plans to attend the upcoming royal weddings in Denmark and Spain. What happened next was therefore all the more shocking.

The Crown Prince opened the press conference by saying that Princess Masako was not going to accompany him on his trip as intended; then, he went on the attack. His face flushed with anger and his facial muscles tightly clenched, the normally circumspect Prince said that Princess Masako had become ill and that she’d “completely exhausted herself” in trying to adapt to life in the imperial family. He added that Masako had hoped to use her experience as a diplomat to promote exchanges with other royal families but that the royal couple had not been allowed to travel overseas for several years after their marriage. He went on to say that there were moves to deny Masako her career as a diplomat and her personality. He concluded by saying that he felt as though he were “wrenching” himself away as he departed and that he hoped “from his heart” that she would be able to join him on future trips.

By Western standards, the Crown Prince’s comments may have seemed mild, if not insignificant; by Japanese standards, however, they were hugely significant. I’d even go so far as to say that it was, to the Japanese, what Diana’s Panorama interview was to the British: a shocking bombshell. In fact, a former chamberlain to the Crown Prince described the remarks as the equivalent to a declaration of war.

There are several reasons why Prince Naruhito’s comments caused such furor. The most obvious reason is that the Prince seemed to be attacking the oppressive and powerful Imperial Household Agency (“IHA”). The IHA has sole responsibility for determining the number of trips which Japanese royals may take, domestically or abroad. Since their marriage in 1993, the IHA has permitted the Crown Prince and Princess to travel overseas only five times, a sharp contrast to the 17 trips undertaken by Prince Fumihito and Princess Kiko, or Princess Sayako’s 10 during the same period. http://babyurl.com/JExTfG Thus, the Prince’s statement about overseas trips was merely an indirect way of pointing to the IHA, without actually naming names. The issue of trips was also a way of symbolizing the overall restraints placed on Masako by the Agency, restraints which had turned her into a virtual prisoner within the palace walls.

Another reason why the Prince’s statements were so significant is because they broke every rule established by the IHA or inherent in Japanese culture. Let’s take the IHA first. As shown in Part I, the IHA has strict, rigid rules regarding press conferences by the Imperial Family. It is exceedingly unusual — if not unheard of– for one of the Japanese royals to call a press conference without first receiving permission from the IHA. In fact, they rarely make any public remarks whatsoever without the Agency’s prior consent. They certainly don’t make unapproved remarks regarding their own life; such statements usually come from the IHA which prefers to limit the announcements to the most impersonal of descriptions. And, at no point does the Imperial Family make unvetted statements about such personal matters as deep emotional “anguish” or the suppression of one’s personality.

Such things are not only a departure from IHA rules but they are also a break from Japanese culture as a whole. Japan is a world where obliqueness is the rule and emotions must be kept private. The concept of “loss of face” is still a powerful factor in business and politics, and one risks “losing face” by being emotional or too candid. In this world, you do not publicly discuss “emotions,” let alone something as extreme as “anguish;” you definitely don’t discuss such private matters if you’re a member of the Imperial Family. For Naruhito to have flouted all normal protocol, gone behind the IHA’s back and to have spoken so frankly to the media about private matters was therefore indicative of how serious and desperate things had become for Masako.

Finally, the Prince’s statements were significant because he was essentially making a public appeal for help. As a Japanese professor of communications has explained, “[t]he message was ‘help us’. He was talking about the princess and the whole imperial family and the appeal was as a human being, not as a prince. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is crisis time inside the agency as this appeal has to be the most shocking comment from the imperial family since the end of the Second World War.” http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=553232004

The public reacted quickly. Within hours of the Crown Prince’s press conference, emails deluged the IHA website expressing support for the Princess and, often, expressing huge criticism towards the Agency. After just two days, there were close to 800 emails; by the end of the controversy, those emails were said to number in the thousands.

The IHA was clearly rattled by the Prince’s statements and the public’s reaction. Going on the defensive for the first time, the IHA made a public statement just days after the Crown Prince’s statement. Grand Master Hideki Hayashida, the IHA official in charge of the prince’s household, said the IHA would look into the situation and try to improve things in the future.

Then, the head of the entire IHA, Grand Steward Toshio Yuasa, stepped into the fray. Yuasa claimed that he didn’t know what was meant by moves to deny Princess Masako her character and personality, something I find exceedingly hard to believe. For one thing, Yuasa was in charge of the IHA in 2002 when the Princess revealed how incredibly hard it had been to adjust to her new life. Yuasa not only was aware of the Princess’ feelings, he actually told a news conference, “I never realized that the princess felt so strongly about it.”http://www.asahi.com/english/nation/TKY200405180221.html

The Grand Steward nonetheless pretended he had no idea of what the Crown Prince was talking about. He said he would try to meet with the Crown Prince upon his return in order to discover the meaning but he added – rather ominously in my opinion – “[i]f those comments were directed at the agency, we have to think precisely about the contents of those comments.” Yuasa acknowledged that the Emperor and Empress had voiced their concerns about the Princess’ state but concluded that it would be difficult to plan for Masako’s treatment because her problems were “not physical.” Id.

The Grand Steward’s comments are exceedingly revealing in my opinion, not only because of his position but also because of the nature of the IHA as a whole. As noted earlier, the Japanese culture fosters a coded form of communication and that’s especially true of political figures and bureaucratic agencies. The IHA is extremely conservative and is not prone to making careless, unscripted statements. To the contrary, they carefully and deliberately examine all possible interpretations before proceeding to comment on something as important as the Imperial Family.Even then, the IHA takes great pains not to discuss anything beyond such basic information as the “who, what, when” aspects of a story; it certainly doesn’t broadcast intimate, personal details regarding the Imperial Family. For example, when the late Emperor Hirohito was dying of pancreatic cancer, it merely claimed that he had a stomach condition.

All of a sudden, the head of this same agency bluntly and explicitly announces that Masako’s problems are not physical in nature. And if something isn’t physical, then the obvious conclusion is that it’s mental. For the Grand Steward to suddenly imply that the Crown Princess is suffering from mental problems is obviously no small matter. It’s also a significant turn around from the IHA’s normally secretive discussions about the royals. The reason lies in the Grand Steward’s other significant statement: “‘If [the Prince’s] comments were directed at the agency, we have to think precisely about the contents of those comments.”

When you read those two statements together – and put them in the context of the IHA’s power, its normally secretive nature, its preference for avoiding any details about the royals’ personal lives, the coded language of Japanese bureaucrats, and the fact that just days before the normally subservient royals had launched a rare attack upon the Agency – then the conclusion is unavoidable: the Grand Steward was making a veiled threat. Quite simply, back down or we will get really nasty towards Masako.

My interpretation might seem over-reaching but the Crown Prince apparently came to the same conclusions. The very next day, he issued a statement expressly declared that his remarks were in no way directed to the present leadership of the IHA or Yuasa. He went so far as to say that he was not talking about anything which had happened since April 2001 when the Grand Steward, the former vice Minister for Home Affairs, had been named to his post as head of the IHA. Soon thereafter, the previously “concerned” Emperor and Empress demanded that their son explain himself to the IHA. He did so, almost immediately upon his return from his overseas trip. Although the media had hoped for another press conference with the Crown Prince, one where he’d give his explanation publicly, the IHA was not going to risk another uncontrolled situation with the rebellious prince. Instead, it imperiously announced that the Grand Steward would meet with him soon “and then announce what he was referring to.”  http://www.japantoday.com/e/?content=news&cat=1&id=299693

Soon thereafter, the Prince withdrew his attacks almost altogether. In a statement released by the IHA, Naruhito stated that he’d merely wanted the public to understand the current situation. While he reiterated Masako’s difficulty in adjusting to life within the Imperial Family, he refused to point fingers at anyone in particular: “I don’t think it would be beneficial to specify who was behind such moves and so I want to refrain from elaborating on details here.” (See http://tinyurl.com/57dkl for text of the Crown Prince’s comments.) He went on to state his determination to see conditions around Masako improve, not only for her to regain her health but also, so that she could fully utilize her career and reflect a new era. The latter comments were probably a subtle warning to the IHA that he was determined to see them loosen their grip on the Princess.

With that, the Agency clamped down on all further information about the couple. The one exception was its announcement in July that Masako was suffering from “adjustment disorder,” a term which essentially means culture shock. In Japan, the condition is commonly associated with children who grow up abroad but experience shock at the rigidity of Japanese culture when they return home. http://babyurl.com/0IVIFg The rest of the world, however, properly interpreted Masako’s condition as depression, an interpretation borne out by the IHA’s admission that she was receiving psychotherapy and prescription medication. Id.Presumably, conditions had deteriorated to such a point that the IHA could no longer hide the situation.

Or was there a more nefarious reason for the IHA’s sudden chattiness? The same month as the IHA made its unusual announcement, suggestions of divorce were “leaked” from the IHA to the Japanese press. Hello! magazine described the situation as follows:

Longtime royal watcher Toshiaki Kawahara claimed that a palace source had suggested to him that Prince Naruhito should divorce the commoner-turned-princess. “Among people connected to the royal family there are some who have told me their opinion that Crown Princess Masako may not be appropriate as a future empress,” royal watcher Toshiyaki Kawahada is quoted as saying. “If this illness goes on for the next five or ten years, public criticism could arise,” continues the comment, “so before then, these people suggest, it would be better for the crown prince to divorce.”

http://www.hellomagazine.com/royalty/2004/07/19/japanroyals/

If the IHA was hoping for a divorce, they must have thought that an announcement about Masako’s mental condition — replete with talk of pills and doctors — could only help their cause. After all, Japan is not as open or progressive as some Western countries in its social attitudes; if mental illnesses continue to carry a social stigma in the West, how much more so in conservative Japan? Perhaps the IHA was hoping that the impression of a mentally disturbed woman close to the throne would shift public sentiment against her. Or perhaps they didn’t care about public sentiment and were trying to send a message to the Crown Prince.

Either way, I firmly believe that the IHA intentionally tried to create the impression of a mentally disturbed woman in order to strengthen their case against the Princess. What I don’t believe is that the IHA was willing to wait 5 or 10 years before something drastic happened. In fact, they probably thought they had no time to lose because, earlier this year, the Emperor was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The law prohibits an emperor from divorcing his wife; it does not, however, prevent a crown prince from doing so. http://tinyurl.com/3vj85 If the Emperor dies before the Crown Prince divorces, then the possibility of divorce (and thus, remarriage) is gone forever.

The IHA’s hopes soundly ignores the basic laws of genetics. The gender of a child is determined by the man, not the woman. Thus, the Crown Prince could have a hundred wives but, if his sperm only carries the X chromosome, then all his children would be female.

Even if remarriage increased the odds for a possible male heir, the fact remains that divorce flies in the face of imperial tradition. There has been only one case of divorce in the entire history of the Imperial Family and that was just a minor relative of the Emperor, Prince Kitashirakawa, who obtained a divorce over a hundred years ago. http://tinyurl.com/3vj85

If no heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne has gotten a divorce in over 2,500 years, I doubt things are going to change now. Not with this Prince. The IHA may be powerful but the prince is simply too much in love with his wife to bow down to bureaucratic pressure and discard her like a soiled tissue.

Furthermore, the Crown Princess herself is unlikely to agree to a divorce. The simple reason is that Masako probably wouldn’t be given much access to Princess Aiko. If Masako had to receive IHA permission before seeing her parents (and, even then, it was infrequent), it’s unlikely that the IHA would permit her to have regular visits with her daughter. And it’s almost certain that the IHA would never permit Masako to have sole custody, even if she agreed to stay in the country.

There is a solution to the entire mess and, at first glance, it seems like an easy one. The answer is to revise the Constitution to permit Princess Aiko to rule in her own right. The government is already looking into that possibility. A parliamentary committee is expected to report next year on the succession law and its Chairman has said that the group is probably going to recommend a female Empress. Another member of the panel believes there is sufficient support in the parliament to act on the proposal and amend the Constitution.

Unfortunately, like most things concerning the Imperial Family, it’s not that easy. For one thing, gender equality is deeply troubling to the influential rightists who really control the country. http://tinyurl.com/6woem The conservative Shukan Bunshun, a leading weekly news magazine, quoted imperial household watchers as saying a gender-blind accession law would pose a risk to the continuation of the monarchy. It quoted one unnamed source as saying: “When an empress has to marry, the choice of a husband becomes too delicate a problem. As a male, his influence on the imperial line can be too powerful and thus pose a challenge to the hereditary importance of the lineage.” Id. In other words, a woman can’t be trusted to be strong, independent or rational.

Medieval and misogynistic perceptions about women aside, there are also some very serious — and very real — practical problems:

For example, women in the imperial family currently cease to be royals upon marriage, thus keeping the family small. But if the law is changed to give imperial daughters equal status, there would be rapid growth in the number of imperial houses, each entitled to official residences and stipends. The tax burden would balloon. The problem that causes the most concern is the distant but inevitable need to find a suitable consort for an Empress Aiko. The difficulties are likely to surpass even those faced by European royals. For one thing, Japan has no titled aristocracy to provide a pool of candidates. Also, a husband would have to be strictly apolitical and uncontroversial to fit the imperial role. A foreign royal might be the ideal choice, but Japan is as yet unlikely to accept the idea of a mixed-blood monarch. [Yet, without] a royal son, the only options would be to re-ennoble old branches of the family to make them eligible to succeed or for the family to adopt a distant cousin. Such solutions are thought to be unacceptable to the public and so controversial that ultraconservatives who might favor them do not air them.
(Colin Joyce, No Male Heir Is Apparent, So Japan Shifting, Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2004.)

Ultimately, none of these factors are as troubling for the IHA as the possibility that discussions regarding the future of the monarchy will lead people to question why it should exist in the first place. Constitutional changes to permit a female empress may thus trigger dangerous public debate about the need for a monarchy, particularly this monarchy which has few duties and even less power. And if one is to change the Constitution, why not do so to completely eradicate the Imperial Family? That line of reasoning may be the very thing that the IHA fears most.

The IHA’s fear is not completely irrational. “According to a 2003 book, ‘Iyashi no Nationalism (Healing Nationalism),’ young people who think of themselves as ‘conservative’ have little interest in the Imperial family. They believe in Japan asserting itself more boldly, but don’t see the Emperor as having much to do with it.” http://babyurl.com/bwMEWs

Given the large financial cost of maintaining the IHA, the IHA may also be concerned about losing its job and the reason for its very existence.Given Japan’s long financial slump, 16 billion yen is 16 billion that could be spent on other areas. Even if the Imperial Family receives only a minute fraction of that amount, it’s still a lot of money in the eyes of those who see no serious benefit in having a monarchy.

If the royals’ duties were substantial or if they brought in considerable tourist revenues like the British royals, then perhaps their existence would not seem to be so fragile. As it stands, however, they seem to have no significant purpose or role, particularly in “modern” Japan. In fact, after the war, there had been numerous calls for the abolition of the monarchy.

Thus, the “breed or die” panic emanating from the IHA has its roots in a very real threat, the deliberate end of the monarchy as a whole. Seen in that light, the IHA’s approach towards Princess Masako and the succession are quite logical. Twisted and callous, but inherently logical. After all, the IHA believes it has been entrusted with the protection of a 2,500 year monarchy, a duty which it does not take lightly, no matter how many victims it leaves in its wake.

What the future holds for the Crown Princess and her family is anybody’s guess. Given Masako’s incredible popularity with the people, perhaps conservatives will risk changing the monarchy. Then again, reform and systemic change are not a big part of Japanese politics, especially when the Imperial Family is involved. For Masako’s sake, I hope I’m proven wrong.

–  pandorasbox-etoile.co.uk

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