As Japan celebrates, new Empress is full of foreboding

May 06, 2019 12:01
Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako greet well-wishers during their first public appearance at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Saturday. Photo: Reuters

Japan is taking 10 days of holiday to celebrate the new era of Reiwa (令和) and the enthronement of the first Emperor in 30 years. Naruhito took over from his father Akihito on May 1.

But one person is not celebrating – Masako Owada, the wife of Naruhito, who has just become Empress for the rest of her life.

“Thinking about the days to come, I feel insecure how helpful I can be,” she said in a statement last December to mark her 55th birthday.

“I would like to continue efforts for improving my health and devote myself to public duties as much as I can participate.”

In the careful language used by members of the imperial family, she was remarkably candid.

A highly educated diplomat and the very symbol of a modern Japanese woman, Masako did not want to enter the “golden prison” of the imperial family.

She did her best to avoid marrying Naruhito. During the courtship, she twice refused his offer and went to Oxford University for two years to study.

When she joined the Foreign Ministry, she was one of only three women that year; 28 new recruits joined, out of 800 applicants.

But pressure from her father, one of the country’s most senior diplomats, and her future mother-in-law persuaded her that “the country” required her to agree. She and Naruhito had a traditional wedding on June 9, 1993.

Her fears and misgivings have proved accurate. The Imperial Household Agency (IHA), which controls the royal family, is one of the most conservative in the world.

It lays down detailed regulations for what its members can do, say and wear. While monarchies in Europe have reformed to reflect the societies around them, the IHA has not.

So, in entering the Imperial Palace that dominates the center of Tokyo, Masako lost her freedom.

The first duty of the wife of the Crown Prince is to have a son who will become the next Emperor. Masako failed. Her first pregnancy in December 1999 ended in a miscarriage. A daughter, Aiko (愛子), was born on December 2001 in the IHA hospital in the palace.

She had no more children. The government was forced into a controversial debate as to whether a girl could accede to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Conservatives opposed it; others believed that Japan was decades behind the modern world.

The government was saved from a decision by the birth of a son to Masako’s sister-in-law and the brother of Naruhito on Sept. 6, 2006. This 12-year-old boy is now second in line.

For many of the 26 years since she entered the palace, Masako has been absent from public life. She has not appeared with her husband and parents-in-law at events where she should.

Due to the extreme politeness and self-censorship that surrounds the royal family, the media cannot explain her illness in detail.

It is certainly stress-related, due to the pressure for a male heir, the need to conform to the rules of the IHA and the stress of public life.

In December 2012, on the occasion of the 49th birthday, the IHA released a statement from her. "As the treatment has lasted for a long time, I suppose that I have caused so much worry … I want to continue to make efforts to recover with the help of my doctors and other people around me. I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to all the people in the country for their continuous warm support."

In indirect comments, Naruhito has put the blame for the illness on members of the IHA and the demands they make on his wife.

Masako is only the third commoner to marry into Japan’s royal family. Previously, brides were selected from among former court nobility or one of the former branches of the Imperial Family. Her mother-in-law, Michiko, who married Emperor Akihito in April 1959, was the first.

Michiko’s life has been similar in some respects to that of Masako. She had several nervous breakdowns because of the pressure and, many believe, the conduct of members of the IHA. She lost her voice for seven months in the 1960s and again in the autumn of 1993.

Japan’s court has inherited many practices from Imperial China. The Emperor is called 天皇閣下 (Tenno Heika), meaning “Your Excellency, the Emperor of Heaven).

Those who address him must use the most polite form of address. Before attending his rare news conferences, journalists attend classes to ensure that they will only ask questions on designated topics but will also use these correct terms.

For example, the word for “died” to describe the passing of the Emperor cannot be used for any other person.

Now her father-in-law has abdicated, Masako is on the front line. She is the Empress of 127 million people who expect her to attend public events and stand with her husband at them. She will be expected to join him on the many foreign tours he will undertake.

The pressure on her will only increase.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.