Imperial family exposed to media speculation in 2004

FOCUS: Imperial family exposed to media speculation in 2004

TOKYO, Dec. 30 Kyodo

The imperial family capped an unusually turbulent year for it in 2004 with a piece of good news — Princess Sayako’s engagement to a civil servant at the Tokyo metropolitan government.

But during the year, the family has been the subject of wild speculation by the media, especially about a rumored family rift in connection with Crown Princess Masako’s physical condition.

Although the Japanese emperor was given the innocuous status of ”symbol of the State” and deprived of any political power under the Constitution introduced after World War II, the words and deeds of the emperor and his family still attract wide public attention.

In contrast to the favorable public impression largely generated by the gentle and modest manners of its members, the secrecy in which the imperial family is enveloped has given rise to the phrase ”chrysanthemum veil” — a reference to the flower in the family crest.

But the veil was partly pulled aside in May when Crown Prince Naruhito dropped a bombshell at a news conference when talking about the health of Crown Princess Masako.

The crown princess is known to have been suffering depression due to stress from her duties.

”It is true that there were developments that denied Masako’s career as a diplomat as well as her personality,” he said.

The candid remark by the usually soft-spoken crown prince was deemed shocking enough to galvanize the media and baffle not only officials of the Imperial Household Agency, which serves the family, but also family members themselves.

Even Emperor Akihito did not conceal his embarrassment. ”I was very surprised…and I asked him to give an explanation to the people,” he said in a written response to questions submitted by reporters on the occasion of his 71st birthday this month.

Prince Akishino, the crown prince’s younger brother, indirectly criticized the crown prince in November for making the remark without consulting with the emperor.

”I myself was surprised at the remark in no small measure,” Prince Akishino, 39, told reporters, in what the media saw as the courtliest brotherly quarrel in the country.

Grand Steward Toshio Yuasa had admitted in May that the issue is sensitive and complicated, saying agency officials are not sure ”how deeply we can delve into the imperial couple’s private problems” as well as ”whether or not we should.”

The crown prince also said that his wife, a Harvard-educated former diplomat, ”has completely exhausted herself” in trying to adapt to life in the imperial family since their marriage in June 1993.

She was later diagnosed as suffering from an adjustment disorder due to stress arising from her status and busy schedule, causing anxiety and depression, although now she is said to be recuperating from the stress-induced illness.

But her husband’s comments triggered speculation among the media, analysts and the public that the crown princess is suffering a breakdown due to pressure to produce a male heir.

The Japanese imperial institution, the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, has been perpetuated through a predominantly male line, with only a few female monarchs. The Imperial House Law currently mandates that only male heirs ascend the Imperial Throne.

But a public poll showed in 2003 that more than 70 percent of the Japanese people support revising the law to allow a female successor to the throne.

The debate over whether to revise the law has further exposed 3-year-old Princess Aiko, the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito, 44, and Crown Princess Masako, 41, to public attention.

Many Japanese people believe it will be difficult for the crown princess to give birth again given her health problems.

No male imperial family members have been born since the Prince Akishino in 1965. Experts say the situation has caused concern among some citizens and lawmakers that the imperial family might run out of a male successor to the throne.

The last Japanese female monarch was the 18th-century Empress Go-Sakuramachi.

Reflecting this concern about the imperial family line, the government has set up a panel of 10 experts to discuss issues concerning the succession. The private advisory panel to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will hold its first meeting in January and compile a report in the fall of 2005.

”The time has come to discuss the issue,” Koizumi said, expressing his willingness to accept a female monarch by revising the law.

Setting up the panel, consisting of a former U.N. diplomat, business leaders and university professors, is ”timely,” said Shingo Haketa, vice-grand steward of the Imperial Household.

In his birthday statement, Emperor Akihito admitted the crown prince’s remarks ”prompted a flurry of discussions including speculation not based on the facts” and it made him ”downcast.”

The emperor expressed his hope that ”the crown prince and crown princess listen to the various arguments that have been made, and having decided on what they would like, seek to find their own way of life.”

The announcement of the engagement of Princess Sayako, the emperor’s only daughter, to Yoshiki Kuroda, a 39-year-old Tokyo metropolitan government official, was a ray of light amid the gloom.

The 35-year-old princess is the youngest of the three children of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and will be the last to wed.

”While many (of her potential husbands) had shied away from marrying the princess due to the uniqueness of her family, someone who was drawn to her has finally appeared,” an aide to the emperor said.

Known as a nature lover who works at an ornithology institute and is involved in promoting guide dogs, the princess said on her birthday in April that it is natural for women of her generation to remain single or put off marriage in a society where females can have more opportunities.

After the scheduled marriage in 2005, Princess Sayako will have to relinquish her royal title under the Imperial House Law, which stipulates a female member has to leave the household if she marries a commoner — another focus of debate on the law in terms of gender discrimination.

The engagement of their daughter will make the emperor and empress feel a little lonely but will also be a great joy, aides to the princess said, adding there is no difference between the imperial couple and ordinary parents when it comes to their daughter’s marriage.

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