TV & Radio
Continued from Japan: Land of the rising daughter - (London) Times 1/2
On the morning of November 29, 2003, a black SUV owned by the Japanese embassy in Iraq was racing up the dusty road that runs from Samarra to the town of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s place of birth. At the wheel was Suleiman Zuma, 54, who had been employed by the embassy since the early 1980s. One of his passengers was a diplomat, Masamori Inoue, 30, an Arabic speaker, married with a son, aged two. The other was Katsuhiko Oku, 45, Japan’s representative on the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. They were travelling to a meeting on reconstruction, for which Japan would give generously.
Trusted with Japan’s most sensitive dealings with the British and Americans in Iraq, Oku was a leading player behind Japanese foreign policy. He had (of course) been to Oxford. He played rugby and was a member of the Garrick Club. Married with three children, he was admired by his colleagues as the epitome of a new, confident breed of internationalist Japanese diplomats. According to three authoritative sources in Tokyo, he became a close friend of Masako while she was in the foreign ministry, and later supported her vision as crown princess. There were even murmurings in Japanese high society of a romance between the two, before they met their future spouses. On that November morning, however, the confident Oku had either made a mistake – or had been betrayed. Two Iraqi peasants described what happened next: four or five white cars overtook the Japanese vehicle and boxed it in. Then a white Toyota pick-up drew up alongside it. One gunman levelled an automatic rifle and opened fire. The SUV slowed down, swayed, veered off the road, then came to a halt 60 yards into a field. All three occupants died. Oku had taken a lethal shot in the head and 10 bullets entered his left side and arm.
The news reached Tokyo on a quiet Sunday morning. It was a terrible blow to Japan’s first overseas military venture in more than half a century. The diplomats’ coffins came back to Tokyo, where few could stay stoical at the sight of Oku’s teenage son standing to attention in his school uniform, tears streaming down his cheeks, as a guard of honour bore his father past.
The funerals, on December 6, 2003, were attended by Japan’s prime minister. However, protocol bars members of the imperial family from attending funerals apart from those of its members, so Masako remained inside the Tobu palace compound a mile or two away. The allied investigation concluded that the murders were the result of a terrorist conspiracy. If so, it had unintended consequences. Later that month, Masako fell into a deep depression. It was as if, after a decade of frustration and conflict, something had broken. One by one, her engagements were cancelled. She would vanish from sight for almost two years. Only little Princess Aiko could console her. Masako’s psychological collapse left a vacuum. In her absence, there continued a bland constitutional debate on the succession. Behind its screen, however, are people with family connections to some of the darkest periods in Japanese history.
The Japanese monarchy purports to be immutable, but in fact has rebranded itself at least four times: in 1868, 1923-6, 1945 and on the death of Hirohito in 1989. Each time there was momentous significance for Japan and the world.
“The ‘mainstream’ faction decided on the death of the Showa emperor [Hirohito] that they would sell a new image of the emperor’s role,” said Osamu Watanabe, a historian at Hitotsubashi University. “They saw an opportunity to regain Japan’s influence throughout Asia, selling the image of a peaceful emperor reigning over a capitalist society. First, they created the myth that [Hirohito] hated war. Then they sent out the new emperor to apologise to the Asian countries for his father’s war.” Watanabe said rightwingers loathed Emperor Akihito’s diplomacy of contrition, but were more appalled at what could come next. “To their dismay, the crown prince and crown princess look even more liberal than the present emperor,” he said. “Masako is seen as the diplomacy-loving crown princess, the symbol of all this sentimental movement. She’s regarded as a protégée of the foreign ministry.”
To Watanabe, the issues go right to the core of Japan’s identity. “You may have a superficial idea that this is a conservative-liberal conflict,” he said, “but if you dig deeper you’ll see it’s really about Japan’s place in the world.” It was, therefore, no surprise to insiders when the first senior member of the Imperial family broke silence on the succession issue. Prince Tomohito Mikasa, 60, is a nephew of Hirohito. He holds plain views on the man who led Japan to war in the 1930s, unmodified by his studies from 1968 to 1970 at, yes, Magdalen College, Oxford. “Nobody could have been fairer and more unselfish,” he said. “Nobody can surpass him in terms of personality and virtue.”
The prince’s opinions are to be found in transcripts of conversations over the years with a group of sympathetic journalists, issued in a collection called Koshitsu to Nihonjin. They have never previously been translated in the West. Once decoded from indirect imperial language, their agenda is clear. He dismisses Masako’s vision of royal diplomacy, saying the “correct form” should be to leave it first to the government, then to the private sector. The prince does not like the phrase “emperor system”; he prefers the term “heavenly lord”. “The heavenly lord has always been at the fixed point to prevent the nation’s collapse and preserve its existence,” he said. As for Masako’s difficulties inside the palace, Prince Tomohito scathingly said, “The palace isn’t as strange as the general public think.” Naturally, he was opposed to a woman ascending the throne. He offered a traditional solution to the lack of male children: Japanese emperors, he said, should once again take concubines to breed boys. These opinions outraged Japanese women and put the prince at odds with the Japanese government’s own Advisory Council, which recommended that women should succeed and an absolute right of succession should fall on the first-born child.
Iwao Sumiko, a prominent academic and one of the council’s two female members, wrote: “What made it possible to maintain this male-line succession was the previous system of allowing emperors to take concubines. This is not something that can be considered today.”
Prince Tomohito’s uncensored opinions amount to a manifesto in favour of the old Shinto state monarchy, abandoned when Hirohito renounced his divinity after Japan’s defeat. But there is more than nostalgia behind it. The presentable face of the revisionists is a man of 30 who sports trendy green-framed spectacles and has the perfect manners of high birth. He is Takeda Tsuneyasu, a great-great-grandson of the Meiji emperor, Mutsuhito, descended, as it happens, through one of his concubines.
Takeda has written a book – judiciously ignored by most of the Japanese media – proposing that Japan should restore the privileges of 11 noble families, including his own, who were removed from the Imperial House by American reforms to “democratise” the monarchy in 1947. “We can provide spare blood,” he says. “We should be called back into service.” Secondly, Takeda argues that the old tradition of adopting aristocratic boys into the family could be revived. Thirdly, he says: “Emperors should be allowed to abdicate. It would be painful to see too old an emperor struggling to fulfil his duties.” Takeda artfully suggests that all of this would “relieve the pressure” on Masako.
The constructive suggestions of this earnest young man and the reactionary manifesto enunciated by Prince Tomohito appear totally unconnected – until you look closely. Prince Tomohito’s father is Prince Mikasa – the fourth and youngest brother of Hirohito – who is still alive but lives in seclusion at the age of 91. Mikasa figured in some of the murkiest episodes of his brother’s reign. In November 1941 Hirohito sent him to Saigon as his personal representative for the southern staff planning the attack on British Malaya, where he served with Takeda’s grandfather Prince Takeda Tsuneyoshi. “I revered my late grandfather and lived with him as a boy,” said Takeda. “One day he noticed that while I was doing my homework I had scribbled the characters for my name in a shoddy way. He seized the paper, he shredded it into pieces and said, ‘Your name is a very important asset, for it was bestowed by Emperor Meiji.’ So I wrote it properly from then on.”
Such loyalty does not wither. Perhaps that is why some of the more progressive members of the government’s Advisory Council suggested the monarchy should be allowed to die out naturally later this century. For China and Korea – the victims of imperial expansion – its demise would be welcome. Would most Japanese care?
Here is a clue. In a national park set in the far-flung suburbs of western Tokyo, the Showa emperor, Hirohito, who led the worst of Japan’s 50-year rampage across Asia, lies entombed in a forest glade. Nearby rests his father, Taisho, who died deranged, and their two empresses. If the dynasty ends, this is where it will come to rest.
Few visitors pay their respects these days, said a local taxi driver, who lamented the area’s decline. “It has been ruined by cheap textile competition from China.” On a weekday morning, only a party of junior-school children crunched up the gravel avenues, to look, beyond the gates adorned with a gold chrysanthemum, at Hirohito’s tomb.
As the children crowded around their teacher, a violent thunderstorm broke, sending them shrieking and scattering amid gales of laughter back down the sacred way to shelter.
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.