Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne by Ben Hills (Penguin 2006).
The prisoner’s days are rigidly controlled by the guards. She cannot call her family or friends without permission, and they cannot visit without prior approval. Trips outside are planned weeks in advance, and, on those rare occasions, she is heavily guarded to prevent escape. She has no passport, credit cards, cash or assets; she doesn’t even have a last name anymore. She is so isolated that she has succumbed to a powerful clinical depression and sometimes spends days in bed, crying and unable to dress, communicating with the guards by note.
She is the Crown Princess of Japan.
So reports Australian journalist Ben Hills in his engrossing book, Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Drawing from an array of published reports, named and anonymous sources, and targeted leaks from the Princess’ friends and family, Hills has written a juicy work which falls somewhere between a gossipy tell-all and a serious biography.
In another life, Hills’ subject was named Masako Owada, and she was the personification of the modern Japanese woman. A daughter of an accomplished family, she spoke six languages, she studied at Harvard and Oxford, and she was one of Japan’s highest-flying young diplomats.
She reluctantly gave it all up to marry a prince. Women in Japan know that marrying into the imperial family is not a storybook wonderland. Life for a Japanese royal is an endless series of religious and public ceremonies, at which they are expected to smile, wave and speak a few scripted words of eyelid-drooping blandness. Royal women agree to shed almost every facet of their prior lives. Above all else, royal women are expected to bear a son, because, under Japanese law, only a male can become Emperor.
When Masako agreed in 1992 to marry Crown Prince Naruhito (the elder son and heir apparent of Emperor Akihito), the royal family faced a succession crisis, because all six imperial grandchildren were girls, joined shortly thereafter by a seventh. Unlike European monarchies, with thousands of potential successors of both genders spread across dozens of royal lines, the post-World War II laws enacted under U.S. occupation severely limited the number of potential Japanese royals. Furthermore, once the Emperor’s granddaughters marry, they will cease to be royal and will become members of their husband’s families. Without the birth of a son to either Naruhito or his fun-loving younger brother Akishino, the imperial family would literally come to an end.
Consequently, the pressure on Masako to quickly bear a son was unrelenting. But, at the time of her wedding, Masako was 30 years old, and years went by without a pregnancy. The media hounded Masako, and, according to one of Hills’ sources, her mother-in-law, the Empress, added to the pressure by demanding to know each month whether Masako had had her period.
Worst of all was the suffocating rigidity of the bureaucrats in the Imperial Household Agency, which controls every aspect of the royal family’s life. The Kunaicho, as the agency is called in Japanese, reportedly “grants” only about 10% of the “requests” made by the royals for clothes, trips, meetings with friends, etc. The Japanese imperial family must look with bitter envy upon the freedom of the European royals to attend parties, drive around town and sneak out of the palace.
“If she wants a book, it will be delivered tomorrow,” a friend of the royal family is quoted, “but she wants to go down to a bookstore in Marunouchi and spend a few hours browsing. That is impossible, they say. And it’s not just Masako – the Kunaicho will not even listen to the Emperor.” Masako so chafed at the confines of life in the East Palace that the Kunaicho feared she might defect, Hills reports.
In 2000, Masako suffered a miscarriage. The next year, Masako gave birth. Little Princess Aiko was cute as a button, but she was not a boy, which only heightened the succession crisis. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began to contemplate the unthinkable: amending the law to allow for a woman to reign as Emperor. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the fun-loving younger brother, Prince Akishino, announced in February 2006 that his wife was pregnant with a third child, which turned out to be a boy. The crisis was over.
But, by that time, Masako’s personal crisis was darker than ever. Masako was in the throes of a deep clinical depression, Hills reports, which the Kunaicho refused to acknowledge because of the stigma against mental illness prevalent among Japanese. Masako reportedly refused to interact with family members or even leave her bed for days, according to Hills’ sources. While her husband would appear at about 300 public events a year, Masako might appear at a dozen.
Hills concludes the book by noting that there is no happy ending to the Princess’ story. While Masako was ultimately treated with anti-depressants, her doctors determined that she would not fully recover until the confines imposed by the Kunaicho were lifted, something the hidebound bureaucracy will not do.
Princess Masako wanted to be a brainy Princess Diana, Japan’s modern ambassador to the world. Instead, she was turned into breeding stock, confined to her pen.
The story of this princess does not end happily ever after.