Earlier this month, Crown Princess Masako appeared in public with her husband and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to help celebrate 2017 Week of Persons with Disabilities. As expected, their role was simple: a photo shoot with the pamphlet for the event and very few words. Apolitical puppets these royals truly were, just as the postwar Constitution indicates them to be. Thus, the annual seven-day event died without making any major headlines or hashtags on Twitter.

The end.

But it shouldn’t have ended there. The Crown Princess has both the influence and personal experience with depression to incite an extremely urgent discussion about mental illness in Japan.

Around 3.2 million Japanese struggle with mental illness. Day in and day out, they are outcasts in a society that is still unaware of an anti-discrimination law for disabled people that was passed last year. Worse, many Japanese continue to believe in an antiquated, scientifically disproven opinion that mental illness is a character flaw and not a true medical diagnosis.

How can we call the attention of the Japanese back to this issue?

Well, their soon-to-be Empress, Crown Princess Masako, has recently emerged from her silence and reclusion. Like students and employees who, unable to conform to the rigid status quo, are harassed for their illness, the Crown Princess has been criticized for “slacking off” during the decade in which she could not fulfill her royal duties due to her depression.

With the aid of her psychiatric team and time to heal, however, she has since returned to the public eye.

If the Crown Princess spoke publicly about the progress in her recovery, society would respond. In his book on Japanese pop culture, Tim Craig, a writer and editor based in Japan, notes that the Imperial family has come to embody a “celebrity symbol of the ‘ordinary’ Japanese family,” an identity that carries “a considerable potential for positive social change.”

Japanese journalists, who have direct access to the public, have a responsibility to change the way they cover her depression. She has the tools to empower the mentally ill in Japan to feel less shame about their condition and be open to receiving psychiatric care; she just needs journalists to help her rebuild that image of mental illness in society.


The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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