‘Imperial diplomacy’ proves elusive dream

Palace life seems a mismatch for long-suffering Crown Princess

by Mie Sakamoto

Kyodo News

Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako marked their 15th wedding anniversary Monday, but their initial hopes of engaging in “Imperial diplomacy” are yet to be achieved.

From November 1994 to December 2002, the couple made five official overseas trips, but since then they have not traveled abroad together except for a 2006 visit to the Netherlands aimed at helping the Crown Princess recover from a stress-induced illness.

The Crown Princess, 44, was diagnosed in July 2004 as suffering from adjustment disorder, a psychological condition attributable in part to the pressures of palace life, and has relinquished many of her official duties while receiving treatment.

“She joined the Imperial family thinking she’d be able to make use of her past experience” as a diplomat, said Hiroshi Takahashi, who covered Imperial affairs as a reporter and now teaches at Shizuoka University of Welfare.

“But the most important thing was to produce a male heir, limiting her activities,” Takahashi said. “On the one hand, she faced the need to bear a boy, and on the other hand, she expressed her opinions too much. . . . I suppose she developed the adjustment disorder because she couldn’t do things the way she wanted.”

The Crown Princess in 2002 explained the difficulties she was facing, during a news conference prior to an overseas trip by the couple.

“During the six years since our previous trip abroad, the fact that it has been rather difficult to make visits abroad is something that has required a great effort on my part to adapt to,” she said.

The couple’s only child, Princess Aiko, was born in December 2001. But the Imperial House Law stipulates that only male heirs can succeed to the throne, putting pressure on Crown Princess Masako.

A government panel on the Imperial succession was set up in December 2004 to explore the possibility of a female ascending to the throne, but such discussions ceased after Princess Kiko, the Crown Princess’ sister-in-law, gave birth to Prince Hisahito in September 2006.

Rika Kayama, a psychiatrist and author of a book on the Crown Princess titled “Masako-sama Is Crying With You,” believes the “marriage was to utilize her ability to engage in Imperial diplomacy, rather than the result of success in love.”

“But once she got married, a reality differing from her ideal was waiting for her. I assume that her disappointment and shock was quite big,” Kayama said, adding that the Crown Prince, 48, probably feels responsible for not being able to achieve what they had sought.

People in Japan are watching closely for signs that the Crown Princess is recovering from her illness, with some supportive of her and others somewhat critical.

“When the couple were married 15 years ago, Crown Princess Masako was popular and many articles described her personality,” said Bunichi Terada, senior editor of the weekly magazine Shukan Josei, which mainly targets housewives in their 30s to 50s.

But the approach of articles changed dramatically in May 2004 when the Crown Prince remarked, “It is true that there were developments that denied Princess Masako’s career up to then as well as her personality driven by her career.”

Up to that point, weekly women’s magazines mostly covered the Imperial family as a role model, depicting them in a positive light. But the family came to be discussed differently, especially in terms of relations between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, just like many ordinary families, drawing controversy.

Terada said readers’ views on the Crown Princess differ depending on which generation they belong to as they project themselves into the relationship.

Those who belong to the generation of Empress Michiko, the Crown Princess’ mother-in-law, think the Crown Princess is being selfish as she goes on private outings while not attending Imperial ceremonies, according to Terada.

“Although such reactions can also be seen among women of the same generation as the Crown Princess, there are more letters and phone calls expressing understanding of the pressure she faces and encouraging her,” Terada added.

Several months ago, the Crown Princess came under criticism, as magazine articles reported she had gone on many private outings while engaging in only a few official duties.

Kayama said such articles are representative of Japanese society, where women achieved equality with men after the war on a superficial level.

Such criticism of the Crown Princess is aimed at the “self-realization and self-assertiveness of Japanese women symbolized by the Crown Princess, rather than targeted at the individual,” Kayama said.

A statement by the team of doctors looking after the Crown Princess issued on the occasion of her 44th birthday in December said, “Although there were ups and downs in the health of the Crown Princess in the past year, she has made sincere efforts with a strong will to work hard and positively.”

Takahashi and Terada both assert that the Imperial Household Agency is maintaining a tight hold on the Crown Princess’ treatment and should be more open.

“If the agency were to be a little more public about what kind of treatment she is receiving and how it is progressing, I think more people would give support and show understanding,” Terada said.