It’s not easy being a woman in the Imperial family.
Four years after Crown Princess Masako dropped most of her official duties to recover from what officials say is a form of depression brought about by the pressures of adjusting to life in the palace, Empress Michiko is now suffering from a wide array of symptoms stemming from severe stress.
Officials announced last week that the Empress, 72, has canceled her schedule for the time being to recover from intestinal bleeding, nose bleeds and mouth ulcers. She has been feeling ill since catching a cold last month, the Imperial household said.
The Empress’ illness highlights both the pressures and secrecy of the Imperial family, which is believed to be the oldest royalty in the world. It has fallen on hard times in recent years because of a succession crisis and, more recently, some bad press.
“It is believed that the Empress is suffering from symptoms related to psychological stress,” said Ichiro Kanazawa, the palace’s chief medical supervisor.
Officials said they believed recent coverage of the Imperial family might be to blame, but have not said what specifically upset the Empress.
The palace has recently been in an uproar over the publication of a book on the Imperial family by Australian author Ben Hills. The book, “Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne,” has been slammed by the palace as disrespectful, and a Japanese publisher announced last month it decided to scrap plans to translate it into Japanese.
The book alleges that Crown Princess Masako has also been under intense pressure from the Imperial bureaucracy to conform to Imperial traditions, keep a low profile and forgo trips abroad until she bears a son. Hills also wrote about growing tensions between members of the Imperial family itself, largely generated by the pressure on Masako to produce a male heir.
The Imperial Household Agency and Foreign Ministry have demanded an apology from Hills for “disrespectful descriptions, distortions of facts and judgmental assertions with audacious conjectures and coarse logic.” The government also protested to Random House in Sydney.
Hills said he was “scandalized” by the palace’s response to his book.
“I have received responses ranging from death threats, presumably from the deranged ultra-nationalists, to congratulations for my honesty,” Hills said in an e-mail. “What is important is that the Japanese people should be allowed to read the book and make up their own minds. The Japanese government is determined not to allow them to do.”
Books critical of the Imperial family and its palace handlers are rare here.
Criticizing the Emperor — once revered as a living god — was regarded as a serious crime in the first half of the 20th century and there is still a strong tradition of respect for the Imperial family, which is zealously shielded from view by secretive palace officials.
This was not the first time the Empress has withdrawn.
In the early 1990s, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to speak for months, reportedly due to unflattering stories in the tabloids.
The stories were relatively mild in comparison with what is found in the British media. In the Japanese magazines, the Empress was portrayed as demanding and sometimes curt with her staff.
Years earlier, the Empress, a commoner born to a wealthy businessman, is believed to have been taunted by palace aristocrats, many of whom were members of the Imperial bureaucracy, after she wed Emperor Akihito, who was then the Crown Prince.
Crown Princess Masako, her daughter-in-law, is also recuperating from stress-induced health problems brought on by the pressures of palace life.
Masako, 43, withdrew from virtually all of her public duties four years ago after being diagnosed with an adjustment disorder.
The well-liked former diplomat, who was educated at Harvard and Oxford, had been under intense pressure to give birth to a boy to succeed Crown Prince Naruhito as the next heir to the throne.
After their marriage in 1993, she had a miscarriage in 1999 and then had a daughter, Aiko, in 2001. With no other male heirs in the generation after Naruhito, Aiko’s birth generated a movement to revise the law to allow the girl to assume the throne.
Those moves have been put on hold since the birth of a son to the Crown Prince’s younger brother.