Princess in Distress

Features News & Views Opinions - May 14th, 2013
Meguro-jin Masako

Japan’s Princess Masako made her first official trip abroad in 11 years this April, heading to The Netherlands for the coronation of King Willem-Alexander, along with the world’s press. She’s more often in the news for trouble at home – her ongoing battles with perceived mental illness, family relationships and the media are discussed at length and in public but the debate is often over-simplified and ill-timed.

Our regular columnist and commentator Henry Watts takes a look at the facts and asks: Is Princess Masako Really a Tax Thief?

Media punch-bag Princess Masako, wife of the heir to the chrysanthemum throne, was reportedly heckled at Tokyo station this March: “Tax thief! Faking sickness, lazy tax thief! Get out of the royal family!” yelled a man of around 60 in reference to the princess’s health problems and prolonged absence from public view.

Princess Masako was said to have been “frozen” with shock at the encounter, before scarpering to the mountains of Nagano with her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, and Princess Aiko, her daughter, for an apparently “tense” ski trip.

Reporters followed the family to Nagano, interviewing skiers agitated by the sizable security detail allocated for the trip. “It’s a nuisance,” said one skier of the 30-strong police escort that surrounded the royals. “If she has the energy to enjoy skiing, then why can’t she do her official business?” the onlooker added.

On the last day, Princess Masako, having neither the energy for skiing nor for official business, stayed safely out of public view (how easily a simple family outing can turn into a melodrama, she must have thought).

Disgruntled passers-by are not alone in their disapproval for the princess. It has been nearly ten years since she was first hospitalised with a “stress-induced” illness, and many royalist sympathizers have, as a result, been feeling desperately unfulfilled by the lack of ceremonial ribbon-cutting and unctuous hand-waving that has been going on.

In 2008, for instance, the princess attended a private dinner with Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, but did not appear a few weeks later for the King of Spain, leaving one palace insider to complain to the Times of London, “What logical explanation can we give for that? That the British are healthy but the Spanish make her ill?”

Afterwards in a right-wing magazine called WiLL, Kanji Nishio expressed likewise that it would be better if the princess could “disembark” the “ship named the Imperial System”, since she is “seasick and cannot stay on board”.

Such protestations fail to understand the nature of princess’s woes, the causes that brought them about, or what it really is that constitutes “public duty”. It is worth noting that the captain of the “ship named the Imperial System”, is not the Emperor, but the bureaucratic giant known as the Imperial Household Agency (IHA).

“In 2001 she again had to listen to the sighs of disappointment when her baby, Aiko, was born with the ‘wrong’ chromosomes. She became, in the words of one commentator, a prisoner of her womb.”

The IHA has itself long downplayed the princess’s illness, calling it “adjustment disorder” – a condition that is by definition acute, rather than chronic, and not supposed to last for more than six months. Though her treatment has gone on for nearly ten years, the IHA has not acknowledged that her illness is what Akira Iwanami, a professor of psychiatry at the Showa University School of Medicine, says is more likely “depression”.

It has not always been thus. Masako Owada, as she was known before becoming a princess, was an Oxford and Harvard educated, multi-lingual daughter of a government official, on the cusp of a promising career in the Foreign Ministry. Things changed in 1993 when she agreed to marry Prince Naruhito (after two rejections, according to rumour) and finally entered the Imperial family.

Soon enough, after the initial buzz of rejuvenated interest in all things royal (prompted by a typically glamorous wedding), the attention around her turned to sexual politics and to whether she could produce a male heir (Japanese succession laws still allow only men to rise to the top).

At the time, there were no grandsons to continue the supposed 2,600-year dynasty of the Imperial family, and pressure weighed heavily on Princess Masako, from the IHA among others, to produce the (male) goods, all the while ensuring she elevated herself from commoner to classy royal.

Then, with her miscarriage in 1999, she had to contend not only with the terrible maternal pain of loss but also the tedium of a royal succession crisis – a position that meant in 2001 she again had to listen to the sighs of disappointment when her baby, Aiko, was born with the “wrong” chromosomes. She became, in the words of one commentator, “a prisoner of her womb”.

That Masako’s rising cosmopolitanism and the palace’s rigid traditionalism would collide is hardly surprising. The IHA has never cared for modernisation. A most conspicuous case was in 1993 when Masako was criticised for speaking slightly longer than her prince during their first joint press conference.

It was, she was told, more befitting of a princess to be deferential and self-effacing. Yet she failed again to exercise sufficient restraint in 1996 when she revealed she enjoyed the novels of Nobel Prize-winning Kenzaburo Oe, an outspoken critic of the Imperial system who turned down the offer of Imperial decoration saying it was unsuited to democracy.

When she finally suffered a breakdown in 2004, Prince Naruhito shocked many by speaking out against the restrictions imposed on her by the IHA – restrictions that he claimed “denied Masako’s career and character” and that, according to Jeff Kingston of Temple University, dictated “clothes, food, press conferences, and a heavy schedule of ceremonial duties”.

If Masako is to be accused of “idle tax-theft” or slacking off, we might first see what “public duty” she can offer when untethered – when the “untraditional” sides to her diplomatic talents are put to good use, and when she is not compelled to conform to the heir-bearing duty and banality of the palace.

That this has been denied to her, and us, is surely the real “tax-theft” here, as well as the likely cause of her psychological decline. And it is therefore not Masako, but her handlers that should feel the ire of the public.

Main image: Crown Princess Masako, Crown Prince Naruhito, His Majesty the Emperor Akihito and Her Majesty the Empress Michiko, Prince Akishino Fumihito, Princess Akishino Kiko in 2011. (Meguro-jin/Flickr)