Behind the Chrysanthemum Curtain

Japan's palace courtiers face big obstacles—in the form of tradition, politics, and their own code of behavior—as they struggle to create a modern role for the country's imperial family

On this unusually steamy day in late May, Makoto Watanabe is frantic. In less than twenty-four hours the Emperor and Empress of Japan will leave from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to begin a twelve-day official tour of Brazil and Argentina. Watanabe perches restlessly on the edge of an overstuffed chair covered in gold cloth. His secretary brings in green tea, served in blue-and-white china cups embellished with chrysanthemums, the imperial symbol. The phone rings, and Watanabe races across the office. "Yes, yes—morning coats," he says. In a moment the phone rings again. This time Watanabe goes over the details of a speech that Emperor Akihito is to deliver.

A thoughtful man whose profile is one of attenuated sharp angles, Watanabe is the grand chamberlain—perhaps Akihito's closest adviser. He is also a courtier who seems to be perennially caught in the middle as Japan's imperial system—a system at once delicate and durable—is pulled this way and that by the conflicting forces at work in Japan as a whole.

Watanabe's pedigree is impressive. His great-grandfather was the imperial household minister from 1910 to 1914. His father, a onetime count, was a playmate of Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito. Watanabe began his career, in 1959, as a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His first palace job was as grand master of ceremonies. In this position he handled the royal couple's official international trips, oversaw some thirty court musicians, and took diplomats and politicians on palace-sponsored duck-netting and cormorant-fishing expeditions. The Emperor and Empress personally approved him for his current job in 1996.

Watanabe's life is tightly intertwined with that of the imperial couple. Most days he is by their side at 9:00 A.M., attending Shinto ceremonies or official audiences for, say, principals of junior high schools or participants in the Special Olympics. Some nights there are banquets for visiting heads of state. Watanabe is privy to the most mundane details of palace life. At the outset of one interview he fretted about the Empress's affliction with a form of herpes that was causing pain in her shoulder.

The imperial chamberlains, of whom the grand chamberlain is the chief, are part of an inner circle of palace bureaucrats, or oku, who work closely with the Japanese royal family. Until the 1970s, when the government decided that morning coats and automobiles would be more appropriate, the chamberlains wore white robes and rode in horse-drawn carriages to pray at the palace shrines. Together with the omote—the administrative courtiers who serve as liaisons with cabinet officials, ministries, and other agencies—they make up the Imperial Household Agency, a secretive bureaucracy that wields enormous control over the affairs of the imperial family. The friction between the oku and the omote has long been fodder for Japan's tabloid press. The strife is real, engendered in part by differences in the roles and perspectives of the two groups. On one occasion when I spoke with Watanabe, he stressed the urgency of fixing a "communication problem" with the omote.

The courtiers of Japan's royal house did not need the death of Princess Diana last year, and the anti-monarchical sentiment amid the mourning that ensued, to remind them that modern monarchies can be fragile institutions, venerable but also buffeted by the crosswinds of the moment. "Emperor Akihito realizes that the greatest challenge for a monarchy in a democratic society is simply to survive," a senior Japanese palace official said to me recently. But how to survive? Behind the walled, moated perimeter of the Emperor's 285-acre palace grounds, an island of luxuriant foliage and delicious air amid Tokyo's congestion, courtiers like Watanabe endlessly and inconclusively search for a response to that challenge.

Think of the imperial grounds as a splendid but secluded village. The Imperial Household Agency headquarters, a European-style structure built in the 1930s, is the town hall. To one side is the palace, rebuilt in 1968, with traditional Japanese-style patinaed-bronze roofs and elegant formal rooms. Some distance away is the two-story modern home of Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko, and their unmarried twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Princess Sayako. It consists of sixty-two rooms (many reserved for official use) laid out around a garden. Dispersed around the grounds are shrines, archives, a hospital, and a silkworm nursery. On a stroll one encounters the occasional volunteer group, its members bent and wrinkled, dutifully sweeping leaves. Smartly dressed men and kimono-clad women arrive in tour buses for audiences with the Emperor. But mostly there is silence.

Here in this compound, in once-magnificent offices that show unmistakable signs of decay (peeling wallpaper, empty Kirin beer bottles, dying plants perched perilously on dusty shelves), Japan's imperial minders speak in dissonant voices.

There are the purists, who subscribe to the view of monarchy articulated for Britain in the late nineteenth century by the political writer and Economist editor Walter Bagehot: royalty must remain cloaked in mystery and magic. They shun talk of more frequent and less formal imperial outings. By scripting press conferences, limiting photographs, and assuming personal responsibility for royal foibles, the purists seem intent on purging the imperial family of its humanity and individuality. They cherish a vision of Japanese monarchy that the public is becoming increasingly disinclined to accept.

Then there are the more forward-looking courtiers, who are busy studying the King of Thailand's development projects and the Belgian monarchy's involvement in trade missions. They want to give Japan's Emperor a more activist role. Members of this group are desperately searching for a modern theme that would solidify public support. "Strong ideological opposition to the monarchy has weakened in recent years," says one senior courtier. "But now we have a new problem: there is an increase in the number of people who don't feel they need the system. And the monarchy hasn't been made meaningful to the younger generation."

This attitude could emerge more powerfully in the event of significant provocation. Imagine, for a moment, that Princess Masako, the Harvard graduate and onetime diplomat who married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, does not produce an heir. This is a real possibility, after five years of childless marriage and, apparently, a dutiful effort to conceive. If the Crown Prince, now thirty-eight, dies without issue, his brother, Prince Akishino, thirty-two, will be next in line to the throne. But after him? So far Akishino has fathered only daughters, and an 1889 law limits succession to a male. Some courtiers, albeit off the record, argue in favor of changing that law. To amend it, however, would require approval by the Diet, or parliament. This would in all likelihood entail a wrenching debate about the meaning of monarchy. The Japanese people would come face to face with the fact that the throne reflects their society all too well. It is built of awkward compromises sustained by administrative inertia. It is an expression of Japan's muddled nationalism.

THERE seems to be no definitive textbook on the management of monarchy, but if a recent analysis in Britain's Financial Times is any guide, the Japanese have done well with some of the basics. Japan's royal family is for the most part morally upright, so far as is known. Its members are discreet with regard to the media. They stay far away from politics. (Japan's 1947 constitution prohibits political involvement by the Emperor.) The royal family lives elegantly but not ostentatiously.

Japan's imperial system is not cheap, however. Including salaries for some 1,150 imperial employees (administrators, cooks, gardeners, musicians, scholars, financial managers, servants) and for 970 palace police officers, the total annual bill is around $200 million. Japan's royal family owns neither the ground on which the imperial palace sits—which during the real-estate boom of the late 1980s was reported to be worth as much as the entire state of Florida—nor any of the almost ten square miles of property, including farms, burial grounds, and outlying villas and palaces, that have been designated by the government for the court's exclusive use. The Emperor is, in effect, a glorified salaryman, paid a yearly tax-free stipend of about $2.4 million. A portion of that, perhaps a third, goes to support certain staff members in the Emperor's personal employ—assistants for his private research on gobiid fish, for example. Daily living expenses for Empress Michiko and Princess Sayako, for the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, and for the Emperor's aged mother also come out of the Emperor's stipend. Several additional households that belong to the imperial family are given their own tax-free stipends, generally about $220,000 a year.

With the nation straining under a huge budget deficit and serious economic malaise, some courtiers worry that the royal family will be accused of not earning its keep. Of course, bean counting misses the point. In Japan, as in Britain, the monarchy serves as the repository of the nation's traditions. "We have a two-thousand-year history," Satoshi Takishima, who until recently ran the palace's tombs division, once told me by way of explaining his visceral resistance to innovation. "We are not in the habit of changing things." Another courtier underscored the point by invoking a mystical simile: "The Emperor system is like air, not something somebody made."

The truth is, however, that many of the traditional trappings of the Japanese throne, from archaic-looking Shinto wedding ceremonies to the design of some of Japan's most sacred shrines, were purposely created by Japan's governing elite as a way to unify the populace after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This event, which ended two and a half centuries of feudal rule, brought the imperial house closer to the center of Japan's culture than it had ever been before. Hitherto, for example, the average Japanese knew little about the Emperor, or about his mythical claim to descent from the sun goddess.

The Meiji Restoration, a dramatic historical period, saw the creation of an ideology from which the Japanese in important respects have scarcely budged. Takashi Fujitani, a history professor at the University of California at San Diego, writes, in his book Splendid Monarchy (1996), "The emperor and his family continue to perform their ceremonials as if they were traditional—somehow timeless and without a history—and in so doing erase the memories of a past when national community was but the dream of a few." The calculated manufacture of tradition is not uniquely Japanese. As the historian David Cannadine has pointed out, only in the late nineteenth century did the British monarchy resume staging splendid public spectacles; for quite some time before that its rituals were clumsy and essentially private.

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Gale Eisenstodt, a writer based in London, was formerly the Tokyo bureau chief for Forbes magazine. Her articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, and Vogue.

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