'Fairy Tale' Keeps Japanese Royals Up at Night

Japanese imperial family beset with health problems and succession fears.

TOKYO, Feb. 2, 2008, 2009— -- When Masako Owada, a vivacious up-and-coming foreign diplomat, married Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan in 1993, the country watched in fascination.

The new royal couple carried an international twist: The bride was educated at both Harvard and Oxford, the crown prince had also spent time at Oxford.

He wooed the bride with the famous line, "Masako-san, I will protect you for my entire life."

The nation tuned in to watch the wedding procession fit for a modern fairy tale and the hearts of the Japanese went out to their young couple.

Fifteen years later, however, not all parts of the fairy tale have worked out.

The nation was shocked in 2003 at the announcement that Princess Masako was pulling out of official duties. Although the Imperial Household Agency first reported the Princess suffered from shingles, it later said she suffered an "adjustment disorder."

The years of struggle to produce a male heir, coupled with a miscarriage, have mounted enormous pressures on Princess Masako, who gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001.

Soon after Princess Aiko was born, the Japanese government started a debate about whether to allow a female member of the family to succeed to the chrysanthemum throne. The law allows only male members to take over the position.

The debate ended when Emperor Akihito's second son, Prince Akishino and his wife Princess Kiko welcomed the birth of a baby boy, Prince Hisahito in 2006.

The public seems to have some sympathy for Princess Masako, who has spent almost half of her life overseas and left her career path as a foreign diplomat to join the imperial family.

"It must have been a huge culture clash, her much Western-influenced life met with the rigid way of life at the palace bound by tradition, customs and rituals," Tokyo office worker Hiromi Takahashi, 47, said. "I am not sure if the bureaucratic agency staff totally understood what Princess Masako was going through."

The public's expectations grew as Princess Masako attended some recent public events. The princess joined Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko last year as they welcomed King Juan Carlos I of Spain and his wife Queen Sofia to the palace garden.

This was Princess Masako's first appearance at an official event for state guests in more than five years. She even managed to host a dinner for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at the residence in late October 2008.

"There was a question whether or not the princess could carry out the dinner as she had planned," said Toshiya Matsuzaki, a veteran journalist who has followed the royal family for the past 50 years for the Japanese weekly magazine Joseijishin. "Her condition is still touch and go, so a lot of decisions often have to wait until the last minute. We often do not know what to expect."

Although it is customary for members of the royal family to give a news conference on birthdays, Princess Masako has not spoken to the media since her birthday in 2002. She issued a written statement on her 45th birthday in early Decemberm last year in which she admitted she has not reached a full recovery. "I am still not able to do everything to a satisfactory extent," she wrote. "

Princess Skips Birthday Events

"But I feel that I have come to be able to do various things and, in the future, I want to step up my efforts one by one under the instruction of my doctors."

The Imperial Household Agency, which manages the affairs of the Japanese royal family, canceled birthday events to mark Princess Masako's birthday because she had a fever and other cold symptoms.

A recent statement from the head of the Imperial Household Agency shed some light on the condition of Princess Masako. The household official also shared his personal views regarding the Emperor Akihito, who also canceled some official events due to ill health.

"The emperor has suffered inflammation in the stomach and intestine," said Shingo Haketa, the grand steward, or senior official of the Imperial Household. "Physical and mental stress seems to be partly responsible for his condition."

Haketa said the emperor seems to have been concerned about the crown prince and his wife Masako, who has been receiving treatment for the past five years.

Even Emporers Need Rest

He said the emperor was "deeply hurt" by some views blaming the state of the imperial household as the reason for Princess Masako's illness.

"It seems to me that [the emperor] has been worried about various issues concerning the imperial household for the past few years," said Haketa, "including the issue of imperial lineage into the future."

The 74-year-old emperor, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer five years ago, still carries a full load of official duties. The emperor took four days off in November of last year. "I would like the emperor to reduce his busy workload in the coming month," Haketa told the Japanese media.

The Japanese emperor is the "symbol of the state" with no political power under the post-war Constitution. But his life and that of his family remain the subjects of close attention among Japanese.

"Empress Michiko has always shown me the way of life and who I would like to be," Tokyo homemaker Tsuyako Igarashi, 80, said.

"I raised five children, lived with and took care of my in-laws and participated in the family business," she said. "I did it all as I watched the Empress do her part, raising three children and tending to official duties."

Those official duties and the lives of the royal family are controlled by more than 1,000 staff of the Imperial Household Agency. It handles day-to-day activities of the royal life from managing schedules to making travel arrangements.

Maintaining the imperial lifestyle and tradition is a primary concern for the agency.

"Therefore, producing a male heir became a main responsibility for Princess Masako," journalist Matsuzaki said. "This made it difficult for the princess to establish her new role, to promote international goodwill by making the most of her experience as a foreign diplomat."

The crown prince said that his wife was "greatly distressed that she was not allowed to make overseas visits for a long time."

"The birth of Prince Hisahito does not necessarily resolve every issue the current royal family faces," said Manabu Oshima, a reporter for the Japanese daily Sankei Shinbun.

He followed the family closely for two years, covering the birth of Prince Hisahito, who is now third in line for succession following his uncle, the crown prince and his father, Prince Akishino. Four more male members of the family are also eligible to become the emperor.

Something May Need to Change

All eight female members of the royal family, including Princess Aiko, will lose their royal status when they get married. The emperor's daughter, Sayako, formerly Princess Nori, joined the ranks of "commoners" when she married a Tokyo City government employee in 2005.

Oshima said one of the concerns for the future is a lack of members within the Imperial Family. "By the time Prince Hisahito is at an adult age and is expected to tend to official duties, most or possibly all of the female members could be out of the family under the current law," Oshima said.

"It would be a heavy load for Prince Hisahito and for other male members of the family to carry. Of course, you cannot deny the possibility of more male heirs to be born in the near future but someone should take a look at the status quo if we are serious about preserving the ancient monarchy."

"Politicians may say they deeply care about the royal family but no one will dare to touch such a delicate issue," Oshima said.

"I am not saying Japan needs to have a female emperor but it is high time to put our heads together if we are serious about maintaining this system. We should at least look at some options, including allowing female members to keep their status as members of the royal family so that they can all share and continue to fulfill duties."

Stumbling Blocks of Communication?

Crown Prince Naruhito made a controversial statement in 2004 in an attempt to "protect" his wife, just like he pledged when he proposed to her.

"It is true that there were developments that denied Masako's career as a diplomat as well as her personality," he said, adding his wife had "exhausted herself" as she tried to adapt to life inside the royal family.

The statement suggested friction between the couple and the agency. "I think it was cool for the Crown Prince to come out and speak on behalf of his wife," said Tomoki Hayashi, a 23-year-old Tokyo businessman.

"Since the agency has not been able to back her up, the Prince must feel he is the only one who can protect her. The agency should not force things on the family just because it is tradition. Things change over time and they need to be more flexible and adaptive. I am single but I hope I can be a husband just like the crown prince."

The family has continued to surprise the nation in the past few years by making a series of unusually candid comments at news conferences.

At a news conference in 2006, Emperor Akihito said that it was "unfortunate" that he had not had many opportunities to see his third granddaughter, Princess Aiko.

At another news conference a few months later, the crown prince said that he would like to create more opportunities for his daughter Aiko to visit with the emperor and empress.

"If my in-laws say on television that my kids do not visit them as often, I will not quite know how to respond to that," said Rika Kayama, a psychiatrist. "They should feel comfortable talking to each other in private more freely but the series of recent comments suggest a line of communication may not be totally open."

Kayama said the lack of communication also seems to extend outside the palace. "Taking Princess Masako, for example, we really do not quite know how she is doing," Kayama said.

"I am sure she is doing what she can to get better but the public is not well informed about her condition."

The Japanese public has not even heard Princess Masako's voice for several years.

$1 Million Vacation

"Hearing directly from members of the royal family is extremely difficult," journalist Matsuzaki said.

"They speak to the press on special occasions such as a birthday, wedding or foreign trip. Even so, reporters cannot ask questions freely. The press corps needs to send out a list of written questions which is checked by the agency staff."

"The interview subjects then respond by reading their scripted response. But, still, press conferences give the family members a rare opportunity to reach out to the public."

Although Princess Masako has been tending to a few more official duties, she has been seen more often at private outings, including being snapped by paparazzi dining at lavish Tokyo restaurants.

The family took an unprecedented two-week private trip to the Netherlands in the summer of 2006, accompanied by Princess Masako's doctor. The total cost of the trip, calculated roughly as $1 million, is said have been paid out of the annual stipend the Imperial Household receives from the national government.

The five members of the imperial household -- the emperor, empress, crown prince, Princess Masako and Princess Aiko -- share a total of about $3.3 million of an annual stipend for daily activities. The palace has no breakdown for individual portions.

Give Royals a Break

"I do not mind our tax money being spent for their personal trip so long as they fulfill their responsibilities at home," said Kenjiro Kondo, a 59-year-old Tokyo businessman.

"It cannot be helped that a trip comes with an expensive price tag since they cannot travel or even move around freely like us. Come on, we need to give them a break."

Psychiatrist Kayama hopes the public understanding for Princess Masako will not wear out before she gets better. "There is nothing wrong with meeting with friends or taking a personal trip," Kayama said. "The princess should do what she can, considering her condition. But my fear is that the public sentiment towards Princess Masako may be shifting from sympathy to frustration.

"People may think she now chooses her activities. Someone in the agency or even her doctor needs to come out and give more details about her to help us understand why she does what she does." Kayama said.

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