Japan’s extreme sensitivity over its royal family was laid bare yesterday when it reacted furiously to an unauthorised biography of its most famous – and controversial – princess, entitled “Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne; the Tragic True Story of Japan’s Crown Princess” (Click title to see the book on Amazon.co.jp).
Japan’s Imperial Family, the oldest royal dynasty with a 2600 year history has been somewhat in danger due to the fact that even after 13 years of marriage, Princess Masako, and Crown Prince Naruhito could not bear a boy to succeed the throne. They are both now well into their 40s, and after suffering a miscarriage in 1999 they have given birth to only one child, Aiko – a daughter (with the help of IVF treatment). Even the birth this year of a new son and heir to her sister-in-law Princess Kiko has done little to relieve Masako’s stress – and has only postponed for a generation the vexed issue of changing the law to allow a woman to inherit the throne. Royal protocol has denied the princess, who was educated at Oxford and Harvard, the kind of high profile role that she and her husband clearly intended. Instead, she has been allowed on only a few official visits overseas and has endured intense pressure to produce a son to secure the line of succession.
Let’s recap some background about the marriage of Masako and her husband, before focusing on the book. The Crown Prince of Japan Naruhito, and Masako Owada married in 1993 in a Shinto ritual deep in the woods of the Imperial Palace, igniting fanfare similar to that of the Prince Charles and Lady Diana wedding of July 1981. The wedding in Tokyo, making Masako a June bride, was undoubtedly the most talked-about royal event in decades. In earlier times Japanese royal brides came from the nobility, but Naruhito followed in the footsteps of his father, Emperor Akihito, by marrying a commoner. Unlike the 2 step (engagement and marriage) process of common people, marriages in the Japanese Imperial Family follow three distinct rituals with the first being prior approval of the Imperial House Council. Naruhito and Masako were locked in matrimony on the following schedule (in which the bride and groom had literally no say):
- 19 January 1993 – Imperial House Council (皇室会議, koshitsu kaigi) Approval
- 12 April 1993 – Engagement Ceremony (納采の儀, nosai no gi)
- 9 June 1993 – Marriage (first child, Aiko born in 2001)
Now, 13 years after this somewhat speedy 4 month marriage procedure, a new book has been released by the Australian author Ben Hills. The book, “Princess Masako – Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne”, is an unofficial (and unapproved) biography of Princess Masako, and it’s content has sparked outrage from the Japanese Kunaicho (Imperial Household Agency) and the Japanese Foreign Ministry, with diplomatic waves of strong dissent rolling as far as Canberra.
The Author describes the book as follows:
… a look behind the ‘Chrysanthemum Curtain’ to the arcane world of the Japanese royal family, where vestal virgins still preside at Shinto rites and the position of royal stool inspector was only recently abolished. Through Masako’s and Naruhito’s love affair, it opens a window on Japanese attitudes towards parenting, mental illness, the role of women, and the place of the monarchy. Princess Masako asks and answers many questions which can never be raised in Japan because of the reverence in which the Emperor and his family are held. What is the real reason Masako had to abandon her studies at Oxford? Why did the Kunaicho, the powerful bureaucrats of the Imperial Household Agency, oppose the marriage? Who are the shadowy figures that persuaded Masako to give up her career and marry the prince? Why is there such secrecy over the couple’s use of IVF, and Masako’s mental illness? What does the future hold for the star-crossed couple – and for the survival of the monarchy. But above all it is the story of a romance gone wrong, which neither will survive undamaged, but from which neither seems capable of escaping…
One must draw a comparison here with the Prince Charles and Lady Diana saga. You may recall that in 1992, 11 years after their marriage, they faced a very similar situation when a book by Andrew Morton titled “Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words” was published. The controversial book about the Princess of Wales portrays her as a deeply depressed and unstable character with suicidal tendencies. Buckingham Palace would not comment on any specific claims, and said Princess Diana did not co-operate with the biography in any way whatsoever. The author Andrew Morton however, maintained the book’s accuracy, and when promoting the book just one week after an event where Diana was filmed breaking down in tears in Liverpool, he claimed that “The tears that she has shed in public in Liverpool are nothing compared to the tears she has shed over the last year. I can’t emphasise strongly enough the volatility of the situation inside Kensington Palace”. The unofficial biography alleges that Princess Diana tried to kill herself on as many as five occasions during the 1980s.
Well, I am not sure about the suicide attempts, but it seems that the social pressure and stress of being a royal princess knows no borders. One can not help but think that we are seeing the Oriental version of Lady Diana in Princess Masako’s unfolding story, especially in light of Ben Hills’ new book. Inevitably, the strain of it all has had a terrible impact on Masako, who has not been able to perform any of her royal duties for since December 2003. According to the book, she has been afflicted with painful shingles, and is suffering from deep depression – although the palace will not admit it. There has also apparently been talk of divorce, though no royal has ever divorced in Japan’s history. Also, although highly unlikely, some even say the Crown Prince is considering renouncing his claim to the throne for his wife, Masako – leaving the crown to his brother. With the Emperor himself ailing with cancer, the imperial system in Japan seems to be in deep crisis.
The book is not in stores in Japan yet. In November, the Japanese publisher Kodansha announced that it would publish the book (in Japanese) in Japan. However, after the bullying from the government they announced last Friday (Feb 16) that they would not be going ahead with publication.
Last Tuesday, (Feb 13) the Japanese Foreign Ministry called a press conference in Tokyo to denounce the book as “unfounded and highly contemptuous descriptions” of the imperial family. They made no specific claims of factual inaccuracy, and contented themselves with deeply inscrutable statements such as saying that the book contains “..disrespectful descriptions, distortions of facts, and judgmental assertions with audacious conjectures and coarse logic”. In protest letters sent to the author and the publisher in Australia, Random House, the ministry demanded an apology and “prompt measures to remedy the situation.”
“Under the Japanese Constitution, the emperor is a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” the letter said. “The government of Japan can by no means ignore contempt for his majesty the emperor who holds this constitutional status, nor contempt for other members of the imperial family as well as the people of Japan”, it went on to say. The rare intervention by the Japanese government was also delivered from their embassy in Canberra, directly aimed at the author, publisher, and calling for the Australian Government to take immediate action. Ben Hills, the Australian author and a former Tokyo based journalist, refused to apologise yesterday and accused Japan of attempting to censor his book.
The Kunaicho (Imperial Household Agency) itself has also written a letter (dated Feb 2007) to the author of the book, publishing it (HERE) on the Internet – not such a traditional form of communication for the Kunaicho I must say. The letter clearly expresses dissent and distaste for the book, but surprisingly does not seem to deny any of the facts presented about Masako or the Crown Prince at all, focusing rather on allegedly erroneous content surrounding the current Emperor and Empress:
I would like to focus on a passage in the book which is directly related to them and totally wrong from a factual point of view. In Chapter seven of this book, you write that, “The Emperor is said to have more than 1000 engagements a year, though all are undemanding formal appearances at uncontroversial events.”
The letter goes on to outline all the important engagements that the Emperor and Empress of Japan have been involved in, completely missing the chance to rebut and dismiss the main point of Hills’ book, i.e. Masako, and how she has been severely mistreated by the Agency, driving her into a recluse life of sickness, depression and it seems, infertility. If there were untruths in what Hills has written, surely the Kunaicho’s arguments could have been stronger, and more to the point than the waffling b/s they have presented to the world in this letter.
Japan has long covered its Imperial family in a protective veil, misconstruing it as the perfect family, a role model for all Japanese subjects, while hiding their personal problems and concerns under the carpet. Japanese journalists traditionally report the imperial family in a reverential way. Honorifics and especially polite terms are used whenever writing about them. Stippy.com however, is not Japanese journalism. The fact that our tax money is used to support the bureaucracy surrounding such a ancient form of keeping the country united bothers me greatly, and I certainly am uncomfortable with the unearned and blind respect that the Japanese media and people pay the pudgy Emperor and his family (the same goes for royals in any other country for that matter!). In this perspective at least, Ben Hills’ book is doing well to shake the foundations of the Kunaicho, asking what value (apart from an empty warm and fuzzy feeling) the Japanese Royals really are giving back to the people of Japan.
Leave your thoughts and comments on the book itself in the section below, or tell us what you think of the Japanese Imperial Family in general, including corrections to anything facts that I have wrong. (My opinion of the Royal Family as a bottomless hole for our tax money will not change though, so rather than slandering me for it, just let us know yours!)