First, Crown Princess Masako feasted on classy Mexican fare from a 13-dish special menu in her honor. Then it was roast duck and shark’s fin soup at a top Chinese eatery. A month later, she enjoyed a sumptuous repast at a French restaurant where the course featured exquisite black truffles.
The troubled Crown Princess has been eating like royalty in recent months — and getting pilloried in the tabloid press for violating the image of Imperial austerity by living the high life in public.
The sightings, documented in paparazzi-style photos in the country’s freewheeling news magazines, have compounded the impression the Harvard-educated Crown Princess — who regularly skips official events because of an unspecified nervous disorder — is taking her palace obligations too lightly.
“If she is well enough to regularly go out for fancy dinners, I wonder why she can’t resume her official duties,” said Sachiko Tomobe, a Tokyo florist. “A nice dinner outside the palace is fine if it makes her feel better, but not too often.”
The 44-year-old former diplomat, who married into the Imperial family in 1993, has opted out of most Imperial functions for the past four years because of what is widely believed to be depression.
She skipped a rice-cake-making ceremony attended by the Emperor and Empress on Dec. 28 but then joined Crown Prince Naruhito and their pet dogs’ veterinarian and his family that evening for a lengthy French dinner.
Her lavish — and publicly funded — meals have attracted attention as the economy is showing signs of faltering, and many Japanese, including Emperor Akihito himself, say they are concerned about the widening gap between rich and poor.
The five-member Imperial household — the Emperor, Empress Michiko, the Crown Princess, her husband and their child — receives a ¥324 million annual stipend for daily activities. The palace has no breakdown for individual shares.
While the recent sightings might seem mild compared with free-spending monarchs in Europe or elsewhere, the Imperial house in the postwar era has until now made a show of being frugal.
The Crown Princess’ sister-in-law, the former Princess Nori, used to make her own boxed lunch when she was single and working at a bird institute. These days, as the wife of a commoner, she appears in the media hunting for bargains at discount shops.
Some critics have even taken the Crown Princess to task for leaving her child — 6-year-old Princess Aiko — in the hands of caretakers while going out on the town. Baby sitters are rare in Japan, and mothers typically stay home with young children while their husbands go out.
“Princess Masako: horseback riding in the afternoon, shopping in Ginza,” said a recent headline in Weekly Gendai. “She’s performed official duties twice, but ample private activity, with more than 50 outings.”
Even before the latest criticism, the Crown Princess had not had an easy time of it.
She came under immediate pressure to produce a male heir for the monarchy after her marriage but suffered a miscarriage in 1999. She gave birth to her daughter in 2001, but females are prohibited from taking the throne.
She fell into apparent depression two years later, seeming to rule out further attempts to have a boy. She’s been portrayed in the media as headstrong and unwilling to make the appropriate sacrifices for the good of the family. Tabloids have detailed rocky relations with her in-laws.
She’s faced criticism for spendthrift ways before. In 2006, she was rebuked for taking a two-week family vacation in the Netherlands — an unprecedented private royal vacation abroad — although it was supposed to be part of her treatment.
The palace, usually skittish about media coverage, has not come to her rescue, staying largely silent about the reports.
Officials have complained only twice: once to deny claims the Crown Princess cut short New Year’s rituals at the palace to have lunch with her parents, and again to deny a story that the Empress summoned her and her husband to lecture them about their work ethic.
Some say Imperial secrecy just fuels the rumor mill.
“Her private outings with relatives and friends, often at luxurious restaurants, do stand out,” wrote Mitsuyuki Manabe, a veteran palace reporter with the Mainichi Shimbun. “It’s only natural for many people to doubt if officials are really telling the truth about her.”
The top restaurants in Tokyo, meanwhile, seem thrilled with the royal patronage.
In August, the Crown Princess went to La Colina, where she enjoyed a ¥10,000, 13-dish Mexican meal — not including drinks — from a custom-made “Her Majesty” menu.
Restaurant owner Shinichiro Hosokawa said the Crown Princess had a healthy appetite and asked animated questions about the food and Mexican culture.
“Princess Masako seemed well, but we can’t say so simply whether she seemed to have recovered,” Hosokawa said. “I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to be the Crown Princess.”