The excitement last weekend over North Korea’s release of some of the Japanese abductees’ children overshadowed another news story about prisoners of the state — the Japanese Imperial family. Crown Prince Naruhito returned from his whirlwind wedding tour of Europe to a tense Imperial Household Agency and his “worried” parents, all of whom wanted to know just what he meant when, shortly before he left, he said that certain unnamed persons were doing something or other that may or may not be causing his wife anxiety and that this was what led to the illness that prevented her from accompanying him. Perhaps.

Despite the elevated circumlocutions, everybody got the point. Unfortunately, the Crown Prince did not follow up his predeparture press conference with a postreturn clarification, at least not for the public. That means we’re all free to speculate on Princess Masako’s real situation and whether or not the Crown Prince is in the imperial doghouse. And it’s fun to speculate. The media should try it.

As it is, they report problems within the Imperial family by conveying related news stories from the foreign press. Almost all the “scoops” about the royals come from overseas and are the products of leaks. In the past, these leaks came from Japanese reporters who felt they could not report them themselves, but even then the only possible source for that information was insiders; in other words, leaks by members of the Imperial Household Agency.

This means that employees of the IHA divulge information to people outside who then relay it to foreign journalists who report it in publications or on TV, which then gets covered by the Japanese press. The press camouflages its role in the process by implying that the IHA is overprotective of the royal family. The IHA tacitly accepts these innuendos as part of its job.

What makes the latest story interesting is the fact that the Crown Prince was bypassing this whole process by directly talking to the press about his wife’s condition. He spoke about Princess Masako’s “personality” and “past career” as a diplomat being “denied.” If you combine this with his earlier comments about the “succession problem (oyotsugi mondai),” it’s easy to connect the dots and conclude that Princess Masako is still under pressure to produce a male heir. That is seen as her main job, and she hasn’t fulfilled it yet.

The IHA’s position notwithstanding, the only person who can put such pressure on the princess is the Emperor himself, and it’s widely believed he still desperately wants a grandson. During his cancer scare he is reported to have said that he could not die without seeing a baby boy in the palace.

In this light, the Crown Prince’s press conference could be seen as being directed at Princess Masako herself, as a way of proving to her that he supports her. Why he, perhaps, didn’t tell her himself is a mystery, but one can only guess the motives of a man who was raised in an environment where even the smallest conflict was avoided. The Crown Prince doesn’t know how to solve his wife’s problem and has no one to turn to for advice, even within the IHA. The IHA employs more than a thousand people, but only a handful take care of the Imperial family, and the head of the agency changes every two years or so.

It’s disingenuous of the press to blame Princess Masako’s problems on the IHA. Her problems can only be blamed on the emperor system and on the Japanese media’s failure to cover her situation from that aspect. If Masako really wants to be the kind of active princess she once said she wanted to be, what’s preventing her? Perhaps it’s too much to expect her to go the Princess Diana route and set up guerrilla interviews with reporters. Diana, it should be noted, fulfilled her job-description duty and produced two healthy sons before declaring her independence. But if the stress that caused Princess Masako’s illness was brought on by frustration at being denied travel privileges, then she has to make the first move.

The main problem is that the succession question is still up in the air. The media covers it gingerly and the government doesn’t seem anxious to discuss the possibility of allowing a woman to ascend the throne, because once they do all sorts of ancillary issues will also have to be worked out. Such discussions may even cause people to wonder if the emperor system is really worth maintaining. According to a 2003 book, “Iyashi no Nationalism (Healing Nationalism),” young people who think of themselves as “conservative” have little interest in the Imperial family. They believe in Japan asserting itself more boldly, but don’t see the Emperor as having much to do with it.

The current system combined with the media’s self-restraint is seen by the foreign press as being the direct cause not only of the Crown Prince’s cryptic comment but also of Princess Masako’s condition, descriptions of which have ranged from loneliness to clinical depression. The Times of London said that her situation has sparked the biggest crisis to befall the Imperial Household since World War II.

If there is one thing that the weddings attended by the Crown Prince proves, it’s that Western royals rely on the media to give them relevance in a world where they have to compete with other famous people for the public’s attention. By not reporting their problems openly, the Japanese media compounds the Japanese royals’ irrelevance. If, as foreign media claim, they are prisoners, then they’re prisoners of their own insignificance.