Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Princess' plight pierces Japan's veil of secrecy

SUFFERING IN SILENCE Beneath the story of an unhappy princess lies the larger story of a monarchy struggling to catch up with a changing Japan


Japan's Crown Princess Masako accompanies Crown Prince Naruhito to an event in Tokyo in this file photo. The crown princess withdrew from her official duties last year and hasn't been seen in public since.


When the Imperial Household Agency announced last week that Princess Masako was receiving therapy for depression and anxiety, it was the first time in the long, long history of Japan's monarchy that there was royal recognition of something most take for granted: personal happiness.

Until then, the issue of personal happiness or unhappiness had never been officially broached, irrelevant as it was in a mind-set that placed the survival of the Chrysanthemum Throne above everything else.

In keeping with that thinking, enormous, ultimately unbearable pressure was applied on Princess Masako, a Harvard- and Oxford-educated woman who had been destined for a brilliant career in diplomacy, to do one thing and one thing alone: bear a suitable male heir.

After Princess Masako disappeared from the public eye eight months ago, the Imperial Household Agency steadfastly denied that anything was seriously wrong. Then last week it put its imprimatur on a statement that the princess was suffering from a stress-induced adjustment disorder and, in addition to counseling, was taking prescription drugs.

Beneath the story of an unhappy princess lies the larger story of a monarchy struggling to catch up with a changing Japan. The monarchy has changed greatly in the last century and a half, and change has typically come with the ascent of a new emperor, which starts a new age on the calendar in Japan.

To many court watchers, recent actions by Crown Prince Naruhito portend changes that will occur when the Heisei Era of Emperor Akihito gives way to the as-yet-unnamed age of the future emperor, Princess Masako's husband.

"The crown prince has been making statements as the next emperor," said Toshiya Matsuzaki, a reporter for Josei Jishin Weekly magazine who has been covering the court for 45 years. "He is contending to become an emperor in a new era."

The prince, 44, who is expected soon to begin assuming many of the public duties performed by his 70-year-old father, signaled how things might change in a speech in May that, especially after the Imperial Household Agency's announcement last week, is being recognized as historic.

In the speech, his usually affable face visibly taut, the prince spoke of the illness and unhappiness of his 40-year-old wife.

"There has been a move," the prince said, in words that have been scrutinized endlessly since then, "to deny Masako's career and personality."

The words, directed perhaps at the Imperial Household Agency, perhaps at his parents, conveyed the message that he was unwilling to let his wife be sacrificed for the greater good of the monarchy.

"Essentially, the crown prince put more importance on individual happiness than on the imperial system," said Takeshi Hara, a professor specializing in the monarchy at Meiji Gakuin University here.

However epoch-making the prince's words may have been, they were in a true sense already behind the times in the broader Japanese society.

For if older generations of Japanese corporate employees and their wives were willing to sacrifice their private lives and personal happiness for the survival of their companies, far fewer today are willing to do so.

The prince and princess were no doubt expected to act the same way their parents had.

Emperor Akihito's wife, Princess Michiko, quickly produced a male heir to the throne. But as the first commoner to marry into the royal family, Princess Michiko was subjected to enormous pressure and also -- it has always been an open secret -- suffered from depression.

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