As much as we all love them, the Imperial family doesn’t make for exciting reading. Last week, the European press was beside itself with news of the abdication of Spain’s King Juan Carlos, who has been hit by several public support-sapping scandals in recent years. The only thing comparable here was that controversy about the propriety of taking photos of the Imperial couple in public places with a cell phone. A high school student got a flattering shot of the Emperor and Empress smiling, waving and looking straight into the camera at a train station in Tochigi Prefecture and then uploaded it on to Twitter. The public reaction was mostly positive, but the media were critical, saying it wasn’t right to share photos on social media of the Emperor, though one could sense in the language the tang of sour grapes. The press is restricted by protocol and this teenager got the best pic of the Imperial couple ever by flouting the rules.
But the photo folderol was not breaking news. The only recent Imperial story that qualified was the announcement that Princess Noriko, the second daughter of Princess Hisako and the late Prince Takamado, plans to marry Kunimaro Senge, the eldest son of the head priest of Izumo-Taisha, the grand shrine in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture. The dailies printed extra editions about the engagement, but it can’t compete with the Juan Carlos story in terms of news interest. Though Noriko is indeed a member of the Imperial family — her paternal grandfather is one of Emperor Showa’s brothers, thus making the current Emperor her father’s cousin — she doesn’t command a high public profile.
More significantly, the aforementioned press protocol means that all we can expect from the mainstream media is a polite report of Noriko’s official visits to other Imperial family members to convey the news personally and then a sober recreation of the official news conference. The Sankei Shimbun version was typical: At 10 a.m. on May 27, Princess Noriko visited the Imperial Palace and told the Emperor and Empress about Senge to gain their permission to wed. The Imperial couple were reportedly “very pleased” with the news, which goes without saying. A snag, however, occurred at the residence of the Crown Prince and Princess, who apparently weren’t at home. Fortunately, a “member of the household staff” was there to convey the news to its intended recipients.
The news conference provided more of a challenge since the reporters assigned to the Imperial Household Agency could add their own spin to what promised to be an uneventful event. Sankei noted that the news conference started promptly at 3 p.m. in an “80-sq.-meter room” on the third floor of the agency’s building “normally used for meetings of agency officials,” and then made a point of saying that Princess Noriko and her betrothed “smiled” throughout the news conference while behaving with the proper comportment (ofurumai), as if this were some sort of gymnastic feat. Noriko spoke fluently and with distinction, and when the news conference was over she made a slight gesture with her left hand to indicate that her fiance should leave the room before her, thus displaying “consideration” for him as her future husband.
Ever since the Emperor lost his divine status after World War II, the Imperial Household Agency has had to maintain that he is a symbol of the Japanese people and not superior to anyone. Ostentation is to be avoided. The various members of the Imperial family live in relative luxury on the country’s dime, so they have to avoid signs that could be mistaken for displays of wealth. Last year when Princess Aiko was seen in public carrying a Gucci bag her mother, Crown Princess Masako, was roundly castigated by the tabloids, and there’s the media dichotomy in a nutshell. The mainstream press approaches the royals with fawning decorum that implies a lofty, albeit lackluster station, while the weeklies carry out an undeclared mission to make sure everyone knows they’re human. Consequently, the latter tend to be more honest in their coverage even if their intentions are anything but honorable.
The women’s weekly Josei Jishin’s coverage was a mix of Imperial Household Agency-baiting revelations and real-world empathy. Its feature about the engagement explained that insiders had been anticipating such an announcement for weeks because of Noriko’s unusual behavior at recent Imperial-related events, but no one expected her betrothed to be Senge. Josei Jishin believes the marriage was encouraged, if not actually arranged, by Noriko’s mother. Princess Hisako, a strong-willed, resourceful woman, had a difficult time raising three daughters after the sudden death of her husband 12 years ago. She is the last in the Takamado line since she has no sons, and according to the rules the daughters will leave the Imperial family when they marry. The eldest daughter, Tsuguko, has been the biggest concern in this regard, since she was always a free spirit and in her youth spent many a night in the clubs of Roppongi, from which Hisako often had to retrieve her. Noriko, however, has always been a rock, and Hisako wanted to make sure she at least would be able to maintain the same standard of living when she left home. As the heir to the position of the Izumo Shrine’s head priest, Senge is assured of that, since the attached compound is huge and his income assured.
Not exactly nail-biting stuff, and given the weeklies’ propensity for anonymous quotes, not the most reliable, either, but at least the Josei Jishin story has narrative integrity with news appeal, and for those who appreciate the refined class-related intrigues of, say, “Downton Abbey,” the Imperial family likely has more compelling stories where that came from. If young people only express interest in royals after some nameless schoolgirl takes a candid photo, it’s obvious the Imperial Household Agency isn’t doing its job. One thing about forced propriety: you know they’re hiding something.