Japanese prince breaks taboo about drinking problem

AP , TOKYO

Tue, Jul 10, 2007 - Page 1

A senior member of the Japanese royal family has begun speaking publicly about his alcoholism, breaking a deep taboo about problem drinking that many people in the country consider too shameful to discuss.

"I'm Prince Tomohito, the alcoholic," the 61-year-old cousin of Emperor Akihito said on Saturday in a lecture at a nonprofit center for the disabled in Sendai, quoted by Hiroshi Shirai, a deputy director at the Arinomama-sha center.

"I've been drinking heavily since I was a college student, and I don't want you to think I just developed the problem," Tomohito said.

The prince's alcoholism has been considered an embarrassment for officials at the palace, which tends to keep secret anything that might harm the royal family's image.

Despite palace doctors' reluctance to disclose his condition, Tomohito said he went public because "there is nothing to hide about," and he did not want unnecessary speculation.

He said that his disclosure provided moral support for fellow patients at the alcoholism treatment center.

"Patients are overjoyed to know they've got a friend in the royal family," Tomohito said.

The prince first disclosed his alcohol dependency last month and has since been undergoing treatment at a palace hospital, overseen by experts from the Kurihama Alcoholism Center near Tokyo.

He told the audience at the center that his dependency had worsened in recent years because of family problems and stress from a controversy about whether the imperial succession law should be changed so that women could become emperor.

The prince last caused a stir in 2005, when he wrote an essay saying Japan should exhaust all other options, including bringing back concubines, before allowing a woman to ascend its imperial throne.

"Over the last few years, I often cursed and drank with a vengeance whenever I was under stress, but I finally decided I should take care of it," he said.

The treatment center said that an estimated 800,000 people -- of Japan's 127.8 million people -- are alcohol-dependent.

Some support groups, however, put the number at as high as 2.3 million.