Princess Masako – “She’s Useless”
Crown Princess Masako of Japan turns 47 on 9 December. It’d be nice to be able to say that she’s celebrating her 47th birthday, but these days she doesn’t seem to have a lot to celebrate. A statement issued by palace doctors to mark the Princess’s birthday said that she was slowly recovering from the stress-induced illness that’s plagued her since 2002, identified by palace spokesmen as adjustment disorder, but that her physical and mental condition is still unstable. The palace has been saying the same thing for years – that she’s slowly recovering from a condition they identify as adjustment disorder, a condition that by definition is acute rather than chronic, not lasting for more than six months. Whatever she’s suffering from, it pretty clearly isn’t adjustment disorder.
The tragedy of Princess Masako’s condition is that it was so predictable. She’s the second commoner to marry an heir to the Japanese throne, the first being her mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, a businessman’s daughter who met then Crown Prince Akihito at a tennis party. Michiko was not accepted by her mother-in-law Empress Nagako, a descendant of the imperial family, or by the officials of the Imperial Household Agency, the civil service department that runs the monarchy. Her treatment at the hands of these people led to several episodes of nervous breakdown, including one widely reported episode in 1993 where she spent half a year unable to speak.
Princess Masako, the eldest daughter of a government official, was set to follow her father in a career in the diplomatic service when she met Crown Prince Naruhito at a reception and he decided he wanted to marry her. She refused several proposals of marriage out of concern that she might be unable to handle the regimented and circumscribed life as a member of the royal family. Prince Naruhito persisted, having decided that Masako was the only woman for him, and in early 1993 their engagement was announced. It was reported that Empress Michiko tried to reassure Masako about joining the imperial family by offering her support and protection, and Naruhito himself undertook to protect her from any possible hardships (by which he meant the dead hand of the Imperial Household Agency).
Prince Naruhito, who had spent two years studying in Oxford in the mid-1980s, appreciated the independence and outspokenness of British women, in contrast to the submissiveness required of Japanese women; perhaps he saw a similar quality in Masako, who had lived in Europe as a child and had also done postgraduate work at Oxford. He also apparently saw an opportunity for a new-style royal family, where Masako could use her experience with the diplomatic service in her role as Crown Princess rather than just fading into the background like previous royal wives. Unfortunately the Imperial Household Agency had other ideas.
Other crown princesses and queens have freedoms that Japanese royals can only dream of. Princess Mary of Denmark has her own charities, Princess Maxima is well known for her support of microfinance, the Duchess of Cornwall has carved out a niche supporting the armed forces, Queens Rania and Noor are prominent humanitarian activists. They go on domestic and international trips with or without their husbands. They are members of families with significant wealth independent of the government, and while they can’t just go off doing anything that takes their fancy, they do have the opportunity to identify and support causes of interest to them. In contrast, the Japanese royal ladies are meant to be submissive, decorative, and silent. If it’s true that Naruhito hoped that Masako could use her diplomacy skills in service of her country, he was being optimistic to the point of fantasy. She was barely allowed to go on foreign trips at all; she had to stay home and concentrate on having babies (how that was supposed to happen while her husband was away on foreign trips is anyone’s guess). When she used her linguistic skills to speak to dinner guests in English and Russian, an IHA official was quoted as accusing her of showing off: “The royal family are not ambassadors. She doesn’t need to be able to speak English, she has interpreters for that. Her job is to smile.”
The most important task for the new Crown Princess (apart from smiling) was to produce a son, and in this she failed miserably. The Japanese succession laws allow only males to succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the imperial family was very short of males. The situation wasn’t helped by the 1947 Constitution drawn up by the Allied occupation forces which abolished the peerage, thereby reducing the potential pool of heirs. Nor was it helped by the provision of the Imperial Household Law that princesses marrying commoners had to leave the imperial family and become commoners themselves, with their children barred from the succession. By the time Masako joined the imperial family, it consisted of Emperor Akihito and his immediate family, including two granddaughters but no grandsons; his brother Prince Hitachi and his wife, who are childless; and his uncle Prince Mikasa, youngest brother of Emperor Hirohito, who has granddaughters but no grandsons. Emperor Hirohito’s other two brothers, Prince Chichibu and Prince Takamatsu, were also childless. The last male born in the imperial family was Naruhito’s younger brother Fumihito (Prince Akishino), born in 1965.
Within a year of Masako’s marriage, the press was hounding her to start producing babies, but years went by and she remained childless. Then in December 1999 she suffered a miscarriage. Finally on 1 December 2001, the 37-year-old princess gave birth to a daughter, Princess Aiko; it’s been reported that IVF was used. Still no sons in that generation, still no potential heir. The press and the IHA went right back to hounding Masako to produce more children so she could have a son. Unsurprisingly, instead of having another child she had a nervous collapse, from which she still has not fully recovered.
When it became clear that there would be no sons in the Crown Prince’s family, there were moves in the government to amend the Imperial Household Law to allow females to succeed to the throne. Conservatives were appalled (Prince Tomohito of Mikasa even suggested that the Crown Prince should take a concubine in order to have a son), but the public was generally supportive. However, increasingly vicious attacks on Masako started to appear in online chatrooms and as unattributed quotes in newspaper articles: she was lazy, she wasn’t really ill but couldn’t be bothered to do her royal duties, she had caused a rift between her husband and his parents, she was, in a word, useless. And perhaps she should do everyone a favour and either divorce her husband or, preferably, commit suicide. Her biographer, Ben Hills, believes that these attacks originated at the IHA.
In 2004 Prince Naruhito took the unprecedented step of speaking out in public in support of his wife and against the forces who, as he said, “denied Princess Masako’s career…as well as her personality.” Although this appeal increased public support for Masako, the other members of the imperial family, particularly Naruhito’s younger brother Prince Akishino, let it be known that they didn’t appreciate his efforts, and he was forced into a public apology. The IHA made it clear that they weren’t about to change their ways just because two successive crown princesses had been driven to nervous collapse by the lives they were being forced to lead.
In the meantime the government was going ahead with its suggestion to amend the succession laws to allow Aiko to succeed to the throne. Then in February 2006 came the announcement that Prince Akishino’s wife Kiko was pregnant for the first time in over a decade. It was rumoured that IVF had been used, and it was a foregone conclusion that the child would be a boy. Sure enough, on 6 September Prince Hisahito of Akishino was born, and public support for the changes to the succession law evaporated. Since the birth of the prince, the Akishino family has figured more prominently in Japanese public life, as the branch of the family with the future heir, and the role of the Crown Prince has been somewhat downplayed. It’s been reported in western newspapers that Prince and Princess Akishino are undertaking trips and duties that would normally be the province of the heir. But of course, with the birth of Prince Hisahito, the more progressive Crown Prince can be safely ignored by the IHA nabobs, knowing that his more conservative younger brother is waiting in the wings with his son and that Pricess Aiko is nothing more than a footnote in the Japanese royal family.
And now, four years later, nothing has changed. Princess Masako is still “recovering slowly” from a condition that isn’t supposed to last more than a few months. Despite the attempt by her husband to plead for a change in the environment that reduced her to this state, nothing has been done and nothing will be done. Princess Aiko has had her own problems, being bullied at school and taking a rather long time to return to full-time attendance. Prince Akishino, once the overshadowed younger son, is front and centre in the imperial family. Prince Naruhito’s dreams of a more open and relevant imperial family, where the women are encouraged to do more than smile and bear sons, appear to be shattered. And Princess Masako, the reluctant princess, has been broken by the system just as she obviously feared would happen when she refused Prince Naruhito’s proposals of marriage for so long. Little point in saying “happy birthday.”
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