TV & Radio
Sunday, Sep. 10, 2006
The Princess Wars
A newborn royal heir stirs the debate over the modern Japanese woman
By BRYAN WALSH/TOKYO
When Japan's Princess Kiko gave birth to a 5-lb. 10-oz. baby boy on the morning of Sept. 6, ensuring the survival of the Japanese imperial line for at least another generation, the entire country appeared to twinkle with joy. Newspapers printed millions of special supplements, titans of industry issued congratulations, imperial enthusiasts gathered in front of the palace bearing flags and shouting "Banzai!" But Fumiko Wada, a housewife from Chiba, just outside Tokyo, wasn't celebrating. Wada is a dedicated fan of Crown Princess Masako, 42, and feels Kiko's miraculous pregnancy was just a way to steal the spotlight from her older sister-in-law, who has long been under intense pressure to bear a prince of her own, as only males can inherit the Chrysanthemum Throne. "Princess Kiko should have stayed in Masako's shadow and supported her," Wada opines. "But she is like a chameleon. Whatever is required, she'll do." Wada pauses. "That's why I dislike her."
Japan is divided into opposing camps of royal watchers: Team Kiko and Team Masako. It is an unusual development. The imperial family, the oldest royal line in the world, is also the most tightly controlled. Its members aren't allowed to have last names, personal wealth, opinions or, for the most part, lives. But the behind-the-scenes tug-of-war over the future of the dynasty has made the royals unexpectedly human--and made Masako and Kiko living symbols of the intense pressure on Japanese women to be both modern and traditional.
In the modern sense, you couldn't ask for a more qualified crown princess than Masako. Daughter of a Japanese diplomat, educated at Harvard, Oxford and the University of Tokyo, Masako was so dedicated to her budding career in Japan's Foreign Ministry that she rebuffed Crown Prince Naruhito's engagement proposal for five years before finally marrying him in 1993. "I thought she was so striking and cool," says Harumi Kobayashi, a fan who has published three books on Masako.
But as year after year passed without a royal pregnancy, hopes that Masako would become the modern face of the imperial family gradually died. It was clear that she had failed in her one traditional duty: to produce a male heir. All her education and accomplishments meant nothing by comparison. Japanese tabloids cast aspersions on her patriotism and her toughness, and not long after she gave birth to a daughter, Aiko, in December 2001, Masako sank into a depression. Now she has gone from an icon of style to an object of pity. "She's been crushed," says housewife Hiroko Nishiyama, a Kiko backer. "I feel sorry for her."
Meanwhile, Masako's demure and traditional sister-in-law, the wife of the Emperor's second son Akishino, seems born to be a Japanese princess. Earlier this year, as conservatives searched for a way to defeat legislation that would allow women to ascend to the throne--a move that had the support of some 80% of the Japanese public--it was Kiko, then 39, who conceived her miracle boy out of pure imperial duty, according to some of her fans. "The Emperor had been worried and depressed that the crown princess had no more children," says Nishiyama. So Kiko and Akishino "decided to have another child to lift the burden from the Emperor's shoulders." Whether or not that's true, Kiko has become the darling of the Japanese media and Establishment for being everything Masako is not. "Princess Kiko was courageous to give birth to a third child in a society of low birthrate," said House of Councilors president Chikage Ogi. "This is what women should learn from her."
But even if the traditional Kiko is lionized, the country's plummeting birthrate shows that Japanese women--regardless of their princess preference--are increasingly choosing modern lives. So the big loser in all this could be the baby. As Japan continues to change while the dynasty stands still, the prince may find it surprisingly difficult to find a Japanese woman willing to become his princess.
With reporting by Michiko Toyama/Tokyo