TV & Radio
The Sunday Times June 04, 2006
Land of the rising daughter
For the first time in centuries a girl stands to inherit the Japanese throne. But a female succession would spell the end of the line for the monarchy. And the crisis has led to a power play behind the scenes, involving a troubled princess, a murdered diplomat and a surprising new contender for the crown. Report: Michael Sheridan
Deep in the heart of ultra-modern Japan stands the Shinto shrine of the sun goddess Amaterasu, at Ise. Pilgrims still trek through the pine forests to this temple, which houses the sacred mirror of the goddess from whom their emperors are said to descend.
Despite the feminine origins of the Imperial House, its continuity for 2,600 years has been rigorously masculine. But now there are two women whose fertility and character will determine the fate of the dynasty, and, many say, the future of Japan. A power play is unfolding between rival factions of the Japanese elite who see the monarchy as a symbol that can be used to modernise Japan or anchor it again in superior isolation. The warring parties regard the two women not as princesses but as pawns.
One is the Crown Princess Masako. Aged 43, educated at Harvard, and the daughter of a diplomat, she is the personification of the Japanese high-flyer – her mind sharpened by two years of postgraduate study in international relations at Balliol College, Oxford. When she married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, many saw her arrival at the palace as a spray of spring blossom against a muted lacquer screen. It was a love match. Naruhito, 46, who shared her memories of a happily anonymous interlude at Oxford (in his case, Merton College), was blissful with his sophisticated, stylish bride. But Masako’s induction to the royal family has brought misery and discord in its wake.
She was educated in the West: she attended kindergarten in Moscow, junior school in the US, and high school in Tokyo and the US. She then went to Harvard, where her contemporaries remember her as superficially cosmopolitan, but say she was also modest and reserved – ie, quintessentially Japanese – underneath. She studied under the dynamic economist Jeffrey Sachs, and wrote a dissertation on the economic effects of oil-price shocks. She was president of the Japanese Cultural Society and a representative on the Undergraduate Council. A family friend, the Harvard professor Ezra Vogel, said she was “an excellent student, modest, hard-working, conscientious, with a good sense of responsibility and professionalism”.
William Bossert, the head of Harvard’s Lowell House, where Masako resided, summed up the misplaced hopes of many when he said: “She is bound to speak out for women’s rights in Japan.” She was never a trendy radical – Japanese TV footage of her at Oxford shows her looking demure in a trenchcoat and sensible shoes. Her love life, if it existed, was strictly off limits. But from the day of her marriage into the Japanese royal family in 1993, she was confronted with a way of life so formal it made the Vatican look lax.
Concerned she should breed an heir and conform to deferential custom, court officials stifled every initiative to put her talents to diplomatic use on behalf of Japan. The lack of privacy was so pervasive, the Japanese media even reported that her laundry was scrutinised for signs of menstruation. Her relations with the reigning sovereign, Emperor Akihito, 72, and Empress Michiko, 71, were whispered to be correct but distant, even though the empress – herself a commoner like Masako – is known to have suffered some sort of crisis in her early married life that left her unable to speak for weeks.
Ten years into her marriage, Masako publicly admitted: “Having entered a completely new world from the one I’d known before, I’ve encountered difficulties I never imagined.” Six months later she had a nervous breakdown and retired from public life. Her husband spoke out to chide those who had, he said, “denied Princess Masako’s career up to then, and her personality”. Masako tried to adapt to a life lived under permanent observation, burdened by protocol and rituals so steeped in antiquity, the royals must master an archaic form of Japanese just to perform them. “She’s completely exhausted herself in trying to do so,” the crown prince said.
Masako’s initiation into the formal Shinto role of the royals began on her wedding day, when attendants set her hair in a stiff black style and helped her into a wedding kimono in the fashion of the 11th-century Heian court. She and her husband disappeared from the view of their 900 guests into a small shrine, where simple vows were exchanged and prayers offered to their illustrious ancestors. From then on, Masako’s duties involved attending annual rites and prayers offered by Shinto priests for traditional blessings, such as a good rice harvest. The blessings became intensely personal when she became pregnant. In the ninth month of her pregnancy she wrapped her belly in a red-and-white silk obi (sash) given to her by the emperor, and prayed for a safe delivery. The rite was performed on the day of the dog in the Chinese calendar, because dogs are widely believed to give birth with minimum pain.
On December 1, 2001, Masako gave birth to a daughter, Princess Aiko, who stands first in line to inherit the throne. After her birth the infant was bathed by a courtier in a cedar tub, while others read aloud from antiquated classical Chinese texts and played musical instruments to frighten off bad spirits. Then, after a messenger from the emperor arrived to disclose the name he had bestowed on the baby, the parents presented Aiko to the gods at three Shinto shrines within the walls of the palace.
But not everyone was celebrating. To traditionalists, the fact that Aiko is female spells the end of the dynasty. Only a royal male can pass on the lineage of Amaterasu, they argue. Indeed, the present Imperial House Law, rewritten under American guidance in 1947, enshrines it. Through her paternity, Aiko may legitimately inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne but her children may not. Thus, sometime around the end of the 21st century, the 127th monarch since Emperor Jimmu would die and the dynasty would expire naturally upon her last breath.
Masako could still produce a boy, of course, but she had a miscarriage in 1999, and this March – more than two years after her withdrawal from public engagements – her husband emphasised how fragile her health still is. “Princess Masako is, although gradually, making a steady recovery,” he said. “Recently she has been able to carry out official duties as a step towards recovery.” But she was not well enough to join him on a trip to Mexico, as she could not travel long distances.
At this point, a second princess enters the tale. Princess Kiko (Kawashima Kiko), a fine-boned lady of 39, married to the emperor’s second son, Prince Akishino (Fumihito), 40, announced early this year that she was pregnant. The Japanese establishment was stunned. Kiko, a psychology graduate from the prestigious Gakushuin University, had given birth to two daughters: Mako, in 1991, and Kako, in 1994. It was assumed her child-bearing days were over. The prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, only learnt of the pregnancy when the national TV channel, NHK, broke the news after it was leaked from the court circles. Koizumi shelved plans to draft a change in the Imperial House Law that would have allowed a woman to succeed to the throne. If Kiko’s child, due in autumn, is a boy, he will precede Princess Aiko to the throne. Tactfully, the crown prince let it be known that he and Masako found the news “very pleasant” and congratulated Akishino. “This was a deliberate strategy by the Imperial family,” said Professor Hatta Ikuhiko, Japan’s pre-eminent historian of the modern dynasty. “I have heard that Princess Akishino [Kiko] consulted doctors, and that new medical technology allows for a 70% probability of a boy. We expect rumours to that effect to be spread by the household this summer.”
Hatta believes Emperor Akihito himself instigated the idea of a third pregnancy for Princess Kiko. There is evidence that he is displeased with the crown prince, and that members of the royal family regard Masako with the same disapproval some of the British monarchy reserved for Diana, Princess of Wales.
As the second son, Akishino (whose time at Oxford was spent at the graduate school of zoology) has kept a low profile ever since he was obliged to deny suggestions in the Japanese press that a scientific trip to Thailand was a cover for an assignation with a mistress. But Akishino’s latest remarks provided a rare glimpse of a family divided. He said it was “regrettable” that the crown prince criticised courtiers, and defended his wife in public, instead of talking to the emperor about their troubles. He added that the emperor had been “very surprised” by the remarks. Even in the encrypted language of the Japanese court, that needed no decoding: emperors do not like to be surprised.
The sovereign, Akihito, rises early every day to perform Shinto rituals in his private shrine within the palace, praying to the plangent strains of ancient music. His appearances are rare, his utterances scripted, and his only known composition of originality is a short poem – a waka – with which he greets the nation at New Year. As high priest of Shinto, a bland spokesman for peace, and an impeccable constitutional monarch, Akihito blends the old and new models of the monarchy to perfection. “Politically, the emperor has no power,” said Professor Keichii Hatakeyama of Gakushuin University. “But spiritually, religiously and culturally, the imperial household is the most important family in Japan. He’s just a symbol, but sometimes that symbol is very important.”
Imperial manners and customs are laden with significance to the Japanese. Most importantly, they send a message to the world about Japan itself. Masako knew that she and Crown Prince Naruhito, who will one day reign, would also have their opportunity to present a new Japanese face to the world. They represent the vanguard for a younger set among the elite, and yearn to cast open the windows of the palace and travel the world as ambassadors for the new Japan – a more relaxed nation of J-pop, manga cartoons, animé videos, spiky hair and fashion-conscious footballers.
The couple were backed by the “mainstream” faction in the foreign ministry, the officials who have drawn Japan closer to America and Britain than at any time since the second world war. These men were behind Japan’s decisions to help the western allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. They fear the rise of China and the nuclear weapons of North Korea. They believe Japan should protect itself by making a once-and-for-all commitment to the western democracies and globalisation. They disdain wartime nostalgia: the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that honours 14 class-A war criminals, and the ultra-nationalist argument that Japan fought a just and honourable campaign – all matters that dangerously inflame its relations with China.
So the succession crisis laid bare an intensely political struggle between modernisers and conservatives for the future of Japan. It meant Masako’s every move played a role in the balance of power between old and new. Nobody, however, could have predicted that a violent death in Iraq would mark a turning point in Japan’s dynastic fortunes.