Tradition Afflicts a Modern Princess
Need to Produce Son Takes Toll on Japan's Royal Family
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page A01
TOKYO -- 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.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company