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
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For Britain's monarchy the challenge is to symbolize the spirit of the nation in a United Kingdom irrevocably beyond the Age of Empire. Japanese courtiers face the task of conveying, through the imperial family's activities, a binding ideal of Japanese nationhood that goes beyond the myth of unique blood—a concept that is beginning to lose its appeal even within Japan. That task would be daunting enough without the prevailing official culture of diffidence and indirection.

Emperor Akihito's interviews and press conferences are formal, staid affairs, and his speeches are almost entirely written for him by courtiers and cabinet members. A talk with Makoto Watanabe is one of the few ways of gaining insight into Akihito's mind, and even this route is oddly circuitous, lined with confusing road signs, and studded with dead ends. And yet Watanabe would argue, with some justification, that Akihito chafes at being dictated to and in fact asserts himself on certain issues. Shortly after Emperor Hirohito died, in 1989, Akihito made a point of clearly articulating his support for the present Japanese constitution—a subtle rebuke to Japan's extreme right-wing activists, who assume that Hirohito never really liked this American-crafted document. (Hirohito did have his reservations. He wanted to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn, in the manner of the British monarchy.)

Akihito has edged delicately toward controversy in other ways. In 1990, when Hitoshi Motoshima, the mayor of Nagasaki, was shot by fanatics for suggesting that Hirohito was partly responsible for the behavior of the Japanese military during the Second World War, Akihito visited the mayor and conveyed his sympathy. Akihito has also demonstrated some initiative in the matter of the Japanese island of Okinawa. His father was never welcome there. Okinawans felt betrayed by Hirohito, and held him responsible for the island's wartime devastation and for encouraging the United States to prolong its postwar occupation. Akihito, however, has shown interest in the poetry of Okinawa and has made several trips to the island, despite being attacked by a firebomber on one occasion.

Hiroshi Takahashi, a journalist and perhaps the most knowledgeable chronicler of the Japanese throne, credits Akihito personally for sharpening and deepening the public expression of Japanese remorse for Japan's ravaging of China and its people during the Second World War. This expression, uttered in the course of Akihito's visit to China in 1992, was particularly controversial, because conservatives did not want the Emperor to apologize to the Chinese at all, and they lobbied the Diet to dilute his speeches. Nobody at the palace will confirm Takahashi's claim, though Watanabe will say that the Emperor makes some editorial changes to the remarks he delivers, seizing opportunities to speak his own mind.

But such gestures, and much else of what the Emperor does, may be too subtle for the average harried citizen to grasp. Many Japanese regard Akihito as bland in comparison with his charismatic father. And the truth is that many of the Emperor's duties are nothing but symbolic drudgery—attesting the appointment of ambassadors and ministers, putting his seal on documents from the cabinet. Every year in early summer the Emperor plants rice at the palace paddy, and the Empress goes off to cultivate silk at the imperial silkworm nursery. "This is a nice tradition," one courtier says, "but Japan's silk industry is pretty much gone, and the number of rice farmers is rapidly shrinking. And Japan's computer industry doesn't need encouragement from the imperial family."

Some Japanese believe that the seeming reticence of the throne is a deliberate choice of the Emperor's advisers. No doubt this is true to some extent, but a good part of the perceived reticence is due simply to inertia. A friend who once worked at the palace told me that it took him a full year to negotiate access to files he needed in order to complete the task for which he had been hired. "The apathy is extraordinary," he recalled. Like Watanabe, most senior officials at the palace come from one of the ministries, many on a short-term basis. The ostensible purpose of this system, which reflects pre-war patterns, is to keep the palace well connected and well informed. But it no longer works. In pre-war times a stint at the palace carried prestige. Today many regard the assignment as an unwelcome diversion from their careers. Understanding little about the imperial system, the temporary courtiers cling blindly to precedent so as not to make some terrible mistake. There are, of course, exceptions. One I met was Tokumitsu Murakami, a director at the Imperial Household Agency, whose bookshelves were filled with volumes on the imperial system written by both left- and right-wing scholars—part of his determined effort to understand what is going on. "It's nice that he's trying," said one Japanese journalist who covers the court. "But he'll be gone soon." Indeed, Murakami recently left the palace's employ.

Taking the notion of imperial impartiality to paralyzing extremes, courtiers rarely seize what might seem like obvious opportunities. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake many volunteer groups formed to help the victims. One adviser suggested dispatching the Crown Prince and Princess to pitch in as a show of support. But the idea was abandoned out of fear of possible criticism for favoring one group over another.

Last year, after the death of Princess Diana, I watched with great interest to see how Britain's royal minders would deal with the public call for the palace to break with protocol and lower flags to half mast, and for the Queen to openly exhibit grief. I was astonished by the rapid and coherent articulation of public opinion and the speed of the throne's reply. Had Japan's Imperial Household Agency been confronted with a similar challenge (not that the Japanese public would ever have been so forward), it probably would have taken the courtiers weeks to overcome infighting, passivity, and the meddling of interest groups.

Another front on which the palace seems to have stalled indecisively involves Princess Masako. Many Japanese expected that she would play a role somewhat comparable to Princess Diana's, and that she would breathe new life into Japan's royal house. This has not happened, and there has been a torrent of press commentary, in Japan and also in the West, questioning why Masako has not assumed a less traditional position. Courtiers have been accused of stifling her ambitions—an understandable accusation in view of history. Japan countenanced eight Empresses among its rulers from 593 to 1771, but after the Meiji Restoration, as noted, the monarchy became a male preserve. Basing their practice on a study of Western models, the Japanese also made royal women conform to roles as wives, mothers, and facilitators of charitable work. By the 1930s palace courtiers were increasingly emphasizing the Emperor's divine status, and the Empress had become even less of a public figure and even more purely a biological vessel for ensuring the continuation of the imperial line.

When I first asked courtiers about Masako, two years ago, they were still sorting out their thoughts. "I don't understand what reporters mean by 'active,'" said the grand master of the Crown Prince's household, Kiyoshi Furukawa. "She's very active. She already has a busy schedule. If we didn't refuse requests, she'd have no private time." Together with the Crown Prince, Masako visits old-age homes, attends sporting events for the disabled, greets foreign guests, and occasionally makes trips overseas. However, these are the same sorts of activities that Empress Michiko performed when she was the Crown Princess. Masako is seen as little more than a demure extension of her husband. Furukawa had no problem with that: "The main function of the Crown Princess is to support the Crown Prince."

More-recent conversations with courtiers indicate that they realize that a good part of the public wants to see Masako as a spontaneous modern woman with a meaningful public life. "I'm hoping that after a certain period of time she will find a way to express herself," Watanabe says. Another senior courtier agrees. "Women in Japan certainly expect this, and if she doesn't, people may lose interest in her," he told me. Of course, they may lose interest anyway. The less prescribed and more spontaneous the job of being a royal figure becomes, the more importance individual personality assumes. But will the people like what they see up close? The fact is, Masako seems to be rather conservative and deliberative, not the free spirit or the boat rocker that some members of the public seem to think. "The media created an overblown image of Princess Masako as the young, aggressive career woman," Watanabe says. "She's very intelligent, but she is also more of a follower." Watanabe dismisses the notion that palace traditionalists have been cramping her style, insisting that her orthodox clothes—the trim suits, hemmed to the knee, and matching hats, often in sweet pastel colors—are her own choice. One fellow student at Oxford recalls, "Masako was very much the traditional Japanese woman, unlikely to take initiative or stick her neck out."

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