When Rika Kayama attended a violin concert at a Tokyo music hall in February last year, she was stunned to find a certain famous face in the crowd.
It was Crown Princess Masako, who had long avoided public appearances because of her battle with adjustment disorder, a mental condition characterized by strong emotional and physical reactions to stressful events.
Kayama, a psychiatrist and professor at Rikkyo University, has authored several books on the Crown Princess and her mental illness.
But on that day, every time the violinist finished playing a tune, the Crown Princess, now 55, leaned forward and applauded with joy. She also chatted with people sitting next to her, including her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito.
“Her expressions looked rather natural and she reacted vividly to situations surrounding her,” Kayama recalled. “My impression is that she is recovering.”
As Kayama points out, Crown Princess Masako, often the focus of intense debate over gender and tradition involving the Chrysanthemum Throne, appears to be bouncing back from the condition she has long suffered from.
Crown Princess Masako, a Harvard graduate, will become the Empress when her husband ascends to the Imperial Throne on May 1.
Over the past 15 years, the Crown Princess was unable to fully perform her public duties, often shuttering herself deep inside the Togu Palace in Tokyo’s Akasaka district.
When she married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993 she was regarded as a figure who could break the mold of the exclusive, male-centric traditions of the Imperial family — believed to be the world’s oldest monarchy.
A former elite diplomat who speaks fluent English and French, the Crown Princess had aspired to promote international exchanges through official visits to foreign countries.
To her disappointment, she was prevented from traveling abroad for long stretches, and was instead kept busy with public duties at home.
She gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001 — but under the Imperial House Law, which dates back to the late 19th century, females are forbidden from acceding the Imperial Throne.
Thus, the Crown Princess remained under immense pressure to give birth to a boy to preserve the future of the family’s male lineage. She was diagnosed with adjustment disorder the following year.
“Princess Masako, giving up her job as a diplomat to enter the Imperial Household, was greatly distressed that she was not allowed to make overseas visits for a long time,” Crown Prince Naruhito told a news conference in May 2004.
She “has worked hard to adapt to the environment of the Imperial Household for the past 10 years, but from what I can see, I think she has completely exhausted herself in trying to do so.
“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,” the Crown Prince also said.
The Crown Prince’s remarks triggered a continuous public debate over what roles women should play — or be allowed to play — under such conservative Imperial traditions.
Many observers argue that the problems the Crown Princess faced are similar to challenges that numerous Japanese women face.
“Japanese society itself is very much a male-oriented society, so that has added to the pressure” on women of the Imperial family to give birth to males, said Yuji Otabe, professor emeritus at Shizuoka University of Welfare and an expert on Imperial affairs.
Japan placed 110th among 149 nations in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings for 2018, the lowest among the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
According to a 2017 survey by the labor ministry, women held only 11.5 percent of positions at the section managerial level or higher at companies with 10 or more employees.
Kayama of Rikkyo University says that, as a psychiatrist, she has seen many female patients in similar situations as the Crown Princess who are struggling to have children and a career at the same time.
“In that sense, you can say Masako is very symbolic of Japanese society,” Kayama said.
When the Crown Princess gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001, the Imperial family still lacked a young male heir and the traditional Imperial succession appeared to be facing imminent danger.
In December 2004, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi launched an advisory committee of experts to consider the possibility of revising the Imperial House Law to allow a female Imperial family member to become a reigning Empress, with Princess Aiko apparently in mind as the future successor.
But after the birth in 2006 of Prince Hisahito, the son of Prince Akishino and nephew of Crown Prince Naruhito, the momentum toward revising the law fizzled.
“The reason why the debate on whether to change the male-successive Imperial system hasn’t really gained traction is because Japan as a society has a history of marginalizing women,” Otabe said.
However, some scholars also say that the pattern of having to put careers on hold to focus on royal duties is a common theme among monarchies across the globe, and is not a problem inherent only to the Imperial family.
Naotaka Kimizuka, a professor at Kanto Gakuin University well-versed in the British royal family, agrees that people who “entered the (Japanese) Imperial family lost their freedom.”
But he also points out that the same can be said of many other monarchies of European countries as well.
“When one enters a royal family, it becomes essential that they give birth to a successor and raise them,” Kimizuka said. “It’s only once they get child-bearing and child-rearing out of the way that they can really focus on what they want to do.”
Case in point is Queen Silvia of Sweden, a commoner who married King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1976. It took some two decades raising three children before she could focus on her life’s work to set up a foundation to help children at risk of violence and sexual abuse in 1999, according to Kimizuka.
Still, there may be particular reasons for the Japanese Imperial family to be more conservative than their European counterparts. In general, the Japanese public, even more so than citizens in Western nations, expects the Imperial family to be perfectly “impartial,” politically neutral and completely free of any vested interests.
This has made it difficult for them to devote energy to any specific causes or groups, including charitable work, says Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor at Nagoya University and a noted expert on the postwar Imperial system.
“In Japan, people expect the Imperial family to be impartial and unbiased,” Kawanishi said. “This expectation makes it more difficult for the Imperial family to engage in philanthropic work as freely as their Western counterparts.”
Kawanishi believes that this exemplifies the different philosophies Japanese and Western societies have with regards to their nobility. Monarchies in the West embody fairness in the form of “noblesse oblige” — the understanding that those who are privileged have corresponding social responsibilities as well. The Japanese public, on the other hand, expects the Imperial family to be fair in a different way — by treating all individuals equally.
And yet, although the Imperial family embodies conservative values that may have been at odds with Crown Princess Masako’s initial desire to be active on the international stage, her struggle with child-bearing, familial expectations and lost career opportunities may be an element that brings her closer to the public.
“Seeing how people engage with her when she visits areas hit by natural disasters, I get the impression that she is a very compassionate person who people can relate to,” Kawanishi said.
“People can connect with her because they understand that she has had to overcome struggles just like theirs.”