JPRI Working Paper No. 66: April 2000
Sex Saddens A Clever Princess
by Murray Sayle

For any woman, losing an unborn child is sad. If the lady is 36, has been married more than six years, is still childless and desperately wants a child, her loss is doubly sad. But when she happens to be the Crown Princess of Japan, it can look like a national tragedy.

Tragedy? That, at any rate was how the Japanese media reported, on the last day of the old millennium, December 31, 1999, that Princess Masako, wife of Crown Prince Naruhito, was not pregnant, despite earlier "indications" to the contrary. Expecting happier news from her medical examination the day before, Japan's TV networks were ready to switch at midnight to special programming, greeting Japan's New Year with world-wide congratulations for the royal couple and the whole nation. Instead, disappointed Japanese TV viewers saw routine reports about the Y2K computer glitch that never happened, and joyful fireworks displays saluting the new millennium-- but in other, luckier countries, not in gloomy Japan.

Since that national sigh of disappointment, Princess Masako, normally outgoing and cheerful, has been little seen in public, apart from occasional glimpses, looking perplexed, through the windows of curtained limousines. Angry newspaper editorials have accused the palace bureaucrats who plan royal journeys of being partly to blame for her miscarriage, by either not cancelling a long-planned, tiring official visit to Belgium by the prince and princess after her pregnancy was first suspected, or not sending Prince Naruhito alone. All this fuss may read like an absurd over-reaction to a normal mischance of married life, one that countless couples, royal and otherwise, have suffered in dignified silence. Perhaps it is. For Japanese however, there is good reason to worry. Their ancient monarchy faces extinction, just when it may have become indispensable.

Many people throughout the world, and even a few in Japan, see monarchy as an out-dated, undemocratic institution, fatally trapped between profit-inspired prying by our less dignified media and the tendency of its younger members to behave no better than, and sometimes not even as well as their friends and contemporaries. Until recently, few people, for instance, would have given the British monarchy much chance of surviving the long-running scandals surrounding Prince Charles, his own tragic princess and his long-serving mistress, although even there the institution has shown unexpected staying power, and Australia has just voted to retain it. But for how long?

In Japan the situation is reversed. No breath of sexual scandal has recently touched any of its members. The family life of the present Emperor Akihito and his Empress Michiko is recognizably that of normal middle-class Japanese (the Empress is the daughter of a wealthy flour-milling and soy-sauce brewing dynasty) and they are close to their studious eldest son, Naruhito, and their clever daughter-in-law Masako. The Emperor and his family regularly score ninety-plus approval ratings in popularity polls, in which a Japanese cabinet is lucky to score twenty-five percent, and one famous poll found only one respondent in a hundred to disagree with the proposition that all the nation's politicians are crooks who deserve to be in jail. Amid the image of predatory companies, arrogant bureaucrats and incompetent bankers that Japan often turns to the outside world, the royal family gleams like a national PR treasure, the very model of a modern monarchy.

Historical Factors

There are deeper reasons for this royal success story, springing from Japan's dark history. Mixed with its 1400 years of monarchy, Japan suffered seven centuries of military dictatorship, culminating in a war against the world in which its cities were destroyed, two of them by atomic bombs. That disastrous war was fought in the name of Emperor Hirohito, the present emperor's father, who was lucky to avoid being tried as a war criminal after Japan's surrender and possibly hanged, and at the very least would have been deposed-- except that his eldest son, Akihito, was only twelve years old when the war ended and no suitable regent was in sight. Instead, young Prince Akihito was tutored in English by an American Quaker, Mrs. Elizabeth Gray Vining, and developed strong pacifist views (as did many of his generation, including Yoko Ono, future wife of Beatle John Lennon). No Japanese doubts that Akihito holds these opinions to this day, or that his eldest son and his wife, who will one day be Emperor and Empress, share them.

The Japanese royal family thus has something to endear it to almost all Japanese. For older conservatives, its members inspire devotion simply because Akihito is the 125th, and Naruhito will be the 126th, emperor of Japan, supposedly descended in an unbroken line directly from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, the reputed ancestress of the Japanese nation. A younger generation sees the family's cosmopolitanism (they speak English and Masako has useful French, German and Russian as well), wide travels, and intellectual gifts as role models in Japan's search, still incomplete, for a respected place in the modern world.

Even more important, the royal family is seen at home as a protector of Japan's still fragile and imperfect democracy, a living barrier against a revival of the military dictatorship that brought Japan to ruin in 1945. Japan still has a semi-Fascist, petty-criminal right wing with insignificant popular support; but unkempt thugs drive arrogantly around Tokyo and many other cities in armored buses with loudspeakers blaring old military marches and hate-filled political slogans without any noticeable police interference. These ugly remnants of Japan's violent past claim to be defending the emperor, and their flags and trucks often use (illegally) the sixteen-petalled royal chrysanthemum crest. But as long as Japan has a popular emperor, a would-be nationalist dictator has to pretend to support him. As long as that emperor refuses to cooperate, a military, or any other kind of dictatorship is check-mated, and Japan's new democracy is safe. Growing prosperous in peace, today's Japanese are overwhelmingly opposed to taking part in any more wars as every poll shows. Their plainly pacifist royal family is thus a living symbol of the unity of the Japanese in rejecting war, recognized as such from the Communist left across the political spectrum.

Although the royal family is of great symbolic importance to Japan, little thought was given, until recently, to its continuity. The line can be traced back to at least to 531 AD, when there was still an Emperor in Rome. There is, however, something odd, even super-human, about an unbroken succession for almost sixteen centuries, as long as Japan has had any written history. Europe has also had some long-reigning families-- Habsburgs in Austria and Germany, Bourbons in Spain and France-- but these lines have survived many interruptions, illegitimacies and descent through junior and female lines. The Japanese throne has passed almost mechanically from father to son, with only two empresses in more than a thousand years, neither of them carrying on the imperial bloodline.

Nor has Japan's royal house ever (at least publicly) intermarried with foreign royalty, as European royal households regularly did and still do, thus guaranteeing a healthily wide gene pool. Even odder, the world's oldest dynasty has no family name. These strange facts conceal a dark truth, little mentioned in Japan and unknown to the outside world-- there was no problem of continuity in the Japanese royal family because they were not a family at all but a useful political fiction which only became a genuine family, with a real family's problems, in living memory.

By what magic was Japan's royal line maintained so long? By the ancient Oriental device of concubinage, rotating teams of part-time mistresses, usually twelve, assigned to the Emperor by the noble families of Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto. By custom, an emperor dropped a silk handkerchief at the door of the mistress on duty whenever the problem of his successor crossed his mind. Resulting children were brought up, not in the Imperial household, but by the families who had sent their daughters, whose sons thus founded collateral branches of the Imperial line from which new emperors could descend. At the risk of some inbreeding, concubinage ensured that a crown prince was almost always available to succeed a deceased emperor.

What survived under this arrangement was not a family but the office of Emperor, passed around like a priceless parcel among powerful clans-- the Tairas, Fujiwaras, Tachibanas, Minamotos, and others, who plotted, futon-hopped, and adopted each other's children. The world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, written by a participant-observer, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, brings the gossip down to the eleventh century and reminds us how little palace life changed since her day. Emperor Meiji, who began Japan's spectacular modernization in 1868, was the child of a concubine, as was his mentally unstable son, Emperor Taisho, who came to the throne in 1912. But

Taisho's son, Hirohito, was born to Taisho's legal empress. Impressed by the British royal family on a visit he made to London, Hirohito abolished concubinage in 1924, the year he married Princess, now Dowager Empress Nagako, who was the mother of his three sons.

Modern Times

Because of these earlier arrangements, by 1945 there were thousands of Kyoto aristocrats who could claim royal blood, each a potential emperor and possible focus for revived militarism. In January 1947, the Japanese parliament, pressured by the U.S. occupation, hastily passed a new Imperial House Law limiting the succession to the direct male descendants of the current emperor and the male descendants of the current emperor's brothers and uncles. As a further safeguard against future manipulation of the throne by militarists, the alternative of adoption, also popular in Japan to continue family lines, was excluded from the imperial succession. At the time these restrictions offered no obvious threat to the future of the monarchy; Japanese recalling its long history had not been told how it had been achieved-- and Hirohito had two brothers and three sons.

Stiff and formal in public, puritanical in private, Hirohito never tried to become a crowd-pleasing monarch. After brushing his name to the declaration of the war that cost three million Japanese lives, mass affection was rather too much to expect. However, like Japan itself, he survived defeat and presided from an aloof distance over its astonishing comeback, demilitarized his throne, and in a reign of 63 years-- the longest in Japanese history-- shared good times and bad with his people, as long as any of them could remember.

In his long reign, Hirohito also did his best to revive the esteem of his discredited house. He asked for a Christian tutor for his eldest son and heir, Akihito, and approved the appointment of the American Quaker Mrs. Elizabeth Gray Vining, being well aware of Quaker pacifism. (The only potential candidates he is said to have ruled out were bible-thumping proselytizers of some other Christian sects that were then active in Japan.) Hirohito paid Mrs. Vining US$2,000 a year from his own pocket, at a time when his personal assets were estimated at $70,000 (the Japanese royal family is far from wealthy, by international standards, even to this day). In particular, he gave his consent when Akihito announced that he wanted to marry Michiko Shoda, the Christian-educated, English-speaking daughter of a flour and soy sauce tycoon whom he had met playing tennis.

The former Miss Shoda, who is now Empress Michiko, was the first person of neither royal nor aristocratic descent ever to join the royal family, and it has been due to her that it has, at long last, become what any Japanese can recognize as a normal family, very like their own. Emperor Hirohito breakfasted every morning (on bacon and eggs, English-style) with his empress, watched television and discussed the news with her, but their children were largely brought up by court officials. When Princess Michiko bore her first child, Naruhito, she not only breast-fed the baby prince-- all previous royal infants, legitimate or not had been wet-nursed-- but described her feelings in a 21-syllable Japanese poem that she read at an Imperial poetry contest:
Milky white spills from his mouth
Clasped around my breast
From his busy crimson lips.

along with another, which any mother (or father) can understand:
Although he is my own,
I hold my child anxiously  in my arms,
Like a treasure I have been given.

Empress Michiko has written many such poems and stories and has become an authority on children's literature in both Japanese and English. In 1995, the Emperor and Empress toured Kobe after the earthquake and, visiting a school gymnasium crowded with survivors, spontaneously took off their shoes, Japanese style, and walked in socks and stockings down rows of their homeless subjects, offering words of comfort. Such small human touches, unheard-of in previous reigns, explain some of the high approval ratings the Japanese royal family now regularly scores. Some stuffy palace officials, however, considered them undignified, and Empress Michiko has suffered much stress as a result of their criticisms.

As Emperor, and even before he succeeded his father, Akihito made clear within the restrictions of his office his deep-grained opposition to war. Eleven years ago, when Akihito acceded to the throne, he swore to uphold the constitution-- the first Japanese emperor to do so-- and to Japanese this can only mean Article Nine, which renounces war. That same year, one of Emperor Akihito's first official duties was to plant a tree in Nagasaki, whose mayor, Hitoshi Motoshima, had not long before been shot and seriously injured by a right-wing fanatic. Motoshima had publicly called on all Japanese to reflect on their role in the World War ll, for which, he said, Emperor Hirohito "shared responsibility." Meeting the mayor-- it could not have been by chance-- Emperor Hirohito's son smilingly wished him a speedy recovery. Akihito even visited Okinawa in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the savage battle of Okinawa. Here, however, he laid a wreath at the official memorial to Japanese soldiers killed and did not stop to pay homage at Governor Ota's more comprehensive memorial to ALL those killed in Okinawa, civilian and military, on both sides. Akihito does not draw up his own schedules. His personal views on this omission are unknown.

Modern Problems

Although almost no Japanese doubts that the current emperor is a convinced pacifist or that his close-knit family, including his eldest son and heir, share these views, concern about the future of the modernized monarchy surfaced as soon as Akihito ascended his throne. Where there had been thousands of potential male successors under the old concubine system, suddenly under the new law there were only three. The new emperor had one surviving uncle, Prince Hitachi, but he was childless. Upon his death, that left only the new emperor's two sons, Princes Naruhito and Aya and their future male descendants. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko also have a daughter, Princess Nori, but she is unmarried and still lives with her parents-- and females are anyway barred from the line of succession. Prince Aya married first, but his two children are Princesses: Mako, now nine, and Kako, seven, and by law the succession cannot pass through them. Unless Prince Aya and his wife have a son, that leaves only the potential sons of Prince Naruhito to continue the line of popular, pacifist, nice-family-next-door Emperors of Japan.

But Prince Naruhito was, even by Japanese standards, strangely slow to marry. Cheerful and intelligent, the prince studied for two years at Oxford, England, and on his return to Tokyo completed a degree in Japanese economic history. Like many Japanese men, he lived with his parents until he was thirty, and had no known girlfriends. Rumors, unsupported by any evidence, circulated in Tokyo bars that the prince was gay, impotent, or immersed in studying history to the exclusion of all other interests. On his thirty-first birthday he was invested as Crown Prince and pointedly asked at a press conference (itself an innovation for Japanese crown princes) about his marriage plans. "In the sense of abstaining from luxuries, I prefer someone who has the same plain tastes and modest money sense as myself," he replied. "A cultured person who values simple beauty. Not a person who wants to buy this and that at, say, Tiffany's in New York." Did he have someone in mind? Naruhito declined to answer. Reports had already been published that palace bureaucrats were trying to find the reluctant prince a bride among the aristocratic families in Kyoto, the traditional source of future empresses. Politely, Naruhito rejected them all.

Then, in 1993, when he was thirty-three, late even for a Japanese commoner to marry, the reason for the long wait emerged, along with a touching love story. The prince had already found his dream princess seven years earlier, on October 18, 1986, when he dropped into a musical afternoon tea being given in the Akasaka Detached Palace in honor of Princess Elena of Spain, who was visiting Tokyo to open an exhibition of Goya. Working on his history thesis at his bachelor quarters a few hundred meters away, Prince Naruhito put aside his books to greet the Spanish princess and to hear a sedate string quartet playing Mozart. (All members of the Japanese royal family are musical, and Naruhito plays viola in the family's chamber quintet). Over the teacups, Naruhito was introduced to Masako Owada, then twenty-two, eldest daughter of Hisashi Owada, Director-General of the Treaty Division of the Foreign Ministry, a high-powered Japanese bureaucrat (who, it was later rumored, may have had a hand in arranging the meeting). As romantic novels put it, the prince had met his Destiny, but the course of true love proverbially never does run smooth.

"Masako" means "Feminine Elegance," an apt name for a young woman who indeed fitted the prince's wistful description, being quiet, modest in her tastes, and, while no beauty queen, possessing the kind of robust good looks that promise to wear well. Her agreeable exterior, moreover, hides a brilliant mind. Only weeks before, she had passed the brutally tough entrance examinations for the Foreign Ministry, a rare feat for a woman, or anyone for that matter. Her accomplishment put her among the eight hundred or so fast-track bureaucrats who run ministries and, in anything important, Japan itself. Masako was about to spend two years at Oxford acquiring an upper-class British polish (she already had a degree in economics from Harvard). Having accompanied her mother and two sisters on her father's diplomatic postings, she speaks Japanese, English and French with a native's fluency, and useful German, Spanish and Russian. A natural athlete, she skis and plays tennis, tried out for an all-girl wrestling team under the ring-name Nancy, and became the popular coxswain (steerswoman and time-caller) of the rowing eight at Balliol College, Oxford. While certainly not aristocrats, the Owadas are of samurai (hereditary warrior) descent, and have produced many professors, headmasters and scholars-- aristocrats of the intellect. Hisashi Owada became vice-minister, or administrative head of the Japanese foreign service, and hoped that his clever daughter would eventually follow him, as the first female vice-minister. Ministry insiders say her chances were excellent.

Naruhito was bowled over. Years later he told TV viewers: "she is so pleasant she makes me unaware of the passing of time." Poets know the feeling; a couple better fitted for the endless conversation of marriage would be hard to imagine. The prince had fallen in love, Japanese style-- he had found the partner he wanted to share his work, for life. She, too, found her admirer's life-style intriguing. Further discreet meetings followed, one under the respectable deep cover of the Japan-British Society. Masako dined at the palace with Naruhito's family, and was treated to a musical evening with the Emperor playing the cello, the Empress on the harpsichord, and their children playing viola and violins. Masako was charmed, and as she later confessed, somewhat awed-- she herself plays no musical instrument. Naruhito's family, we know, liked her a lot. The pair managed a few more meetings, never alone. The prince met her parents, and proposed. Masako thought it over. Their next meeting was short, bittersweet. His Highness had been kind, his proposal was an undeserved honor, nothing personal . . . but . . . no. Masako was not prepared to give up her career. For the next five years, while the prince was rejecting other candidates, they neither met, wrote nor telephoned. The tentative romance seemed to be over.

In the summer of 1992, as the prince neared thirty-three, the three-man princess search group of palace officials asked Naruhito for suggestions. Unless they could come up with someone like Masako Owada, he warned, they were wasting government time, as he intended to stay single. Through an old-boy connection Shoichi Fujimori, the Grand Steward, requested one last try by Masako's father, now head of the diplomatic service. Hisashi Owada persuaded his daughter to take tea with the prince at the house of one of his predecessors at the Foreign Ministry. The prince arrived in a curtained limousine, Miss Owada by subway. The answer was still no, but more discreet meetings followed, and many telephone calls-- one from Empress Michiko, from much the same middle-class social stratum as Masako herself, who reportedly reassured her prospective daughter-in-law that she would at least have no mother-in-law problems. On December 19, 1992-- ironically, ten days after Prince Charles and Princess Di of England announced their separation-- Masako accepted her Prince's proposal. They had met perhaps ten times, never alone. All Japan was overjoyed.

"Despicable Journalism" Sells Well

The royal wedding, June 9, 1993, was a fairy-tale affair, the new princess bewitching in a white silk dress and diamond tiara, the groom handsome in Western formal attire. The next public occasion, it was assumed, would be the Shinto blessing of a new baby, preferably male, to solve Japan's looming dynastic problem. Asked even before the wedding how many children the couple planned, a smiling Naruhito replied "We will let the mood of the stork decide." (Storks delivering babies is a Western, not a Japanese myth.) "I told him not expect enough players to complete an orchestra," Masako joked at the same press conference. Years passed. The couple were often seen together, cheerfully hiking and picnicking, but official duties seemed to take up much of their time. The lack of an heir was more and more often raised at press conferences, questions the prince parried with much good humor. "The stork is a shy bird and should not be disturbed," he told a questioner on the first anniversary of his engagement. "I think the stork prefers to be left in peace," he joked on his thirty-sixth birthday in 1996.

It was reported that the couple had undergone fertility tests, and there were speculations that the prince may have the low sperm counts said to be mysteriously afflicting Japanese males-- reports that must have caused agonies of embarrassment to his sensitive princess. On his 39th birthday last year, Naruhito was once again asked whether the couple was expecting a child, and once again he joked about the stork, adding, some thought with a touch of impatience in his normally courteous manner, that he understood the importance of the question, and his people's hopes.

On December 10, 1999, the Asahi newspaper, with a circulation of ten million, reported days before the royal couple were due to fly to Brussels to attend a royal wedding that Masako was showing "early indications" of pregnancy, hinting that this meant morning sickness. The leak had apparently come from one of the princess's doctors. The other Japanese media pounced on the scoop. "It was despicable journalism," an executive editor of the Daily Yomiuri, circulation eleven million, told a colleague, "but I wish we'd had it first." The couple flew to Brussels, and returned. Then, after more leaked stories, came the sad report that the princess was not pregnant after all. She had been, it was revealed, but the fetus had died, and had been surgically removed. Its sex has not been disclosed.

In late February an official of the Imperial Household Agency, Deputy Grand steward Yuko Mori, deplored the media's intrusion into the private life of the Crown Princess in an appearance before a committee of the House of Representatives, improbably adding (on what medical authority is unknown) that invasive reporting had not contributed to her miscarriage. Later Prince Naruhito publicly asked for some privacy for himself and his wife. The fatal conflict of any modern monarchy, between natural public interest in its practitioners' doings, exploited by a circulation-hungry prurient press, and the inescapable fact that real families are made up of normal human beings, has at last hit Japan-- not as sexual scandal, since Japan's decorous and cultured royal family offer little scope for gossip, but in the crueller form of public pressure on a not-so-young woman to bear a child of the right sex, thus making an already difficult duty even harder, perhaps impossible.

There have been unsubstantiated rumors, predictable in a gossipy metropolis like Tokyo, that Palace doctors are prepared to attempt (or have already tried) artificial insemination with Naruhito's sperm, or even that of a nameless donor. But if it were Masako herself who has difficulty in bearing children, then the end of concubinage has created a seemingly insoluble succession crisis. Even surrogate motherhood-- the modern equivalent of concubinage-- would be both unacceptable to traditionally-minded Japanese and, as things stand, against Japanese law. A better solution seems obvious: change the law, so that females could succeed to the throne. This would create two ready-made heiresses, the daughters of Prince Aya. The pressure would then be off Princess Masako, and she and her genial husband could stalk the shy stork in peace. Some of the most admired monarchs of Europe have, after all been women: Maria-Teresa of Austria, Catherine of Russia, Isabella of Spain, the two Elizabeths of England-- so why not a reigning Empress Mako of Japan, if that's how the genetic dice are going to fall?

To see why a reigning Japanese empress is impossible, we need to trace the origin of the Japanese monarchy back to its mysterious Asian roots. European kings are descendants of the chiefs of the war bands that invaded the late Roman Empire, mostly by land, although the English came by sea. Monarchs are therefore commanders-in-chief of their armed forces, barriers against military dictatorship. Since they no longer have to lead in person on the battlefield, a woman can do the job as well as a man. The Japanese emperor, however, is the hereditary high priest and symbolic lover of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, the mythical ancestress of all Japanese. Only the emperor is directly descended, father to son from the goddess, which makes him the living ancestor of all true Japanese, the head of the whole Japanese family. His prayers to the goddess are therefore thought to be more effective than those belonging to lesser branches of the divinely-descended nation.

The legend, brought with the cult of the goddess from Central Asia two thousand years ago, would have become an historical memory, except that every emperor is expected to re-enact it, once every reign, as part of his enthronement. At two a.m. in the morning (when the sun is absent from the sky) a new emperor, alone with the goddess in a temporary shrine lit by flickering candles, offers her a symbolic meal of rice from all over Japan, while female attendants stand at a respectful distance. These proceedings take place on what are officially described as "twin couch-thrones" but to a Western eye look remarkably like beds. At some point, according to legend, a divine essence passes from the goddess to the emperor, and hence to his male descendants, who are thus in a spiritual sense offspring of the goddess herself. Their human mothers and their female offspring are not thought to contribute anything to this mystical union of goddess and emperor.

It is highly unlikely that the scientifically-trained emperor Hirohito or his son Akihito ever thought that this myth was literally true, but it is the traditional belief-- and the stability and predictability that are among the merits of monarchy come partly from respecting its traditions. Clearly, there are ancient sexual overtones in the Daijosai, the Great Food Offering, as this strange ceremony is called. If not, why has no reigning empress ever been allowed to perform it, and no emperor's human wife or concubine ever been present, even as a female attendant? Can the Sun Goddess be jealous? More likely, it is an atavistic prejudice against real women, like the prohibition on human females polluting the sacred sumo ring, which has currently been invoked to stop Japan's first female governor, Fusae Ota of Osaka from presenting the Governor's Cup at the Osaka spring sumo tournament. (Ms. Ota was elected February 6 replacing the disgraced comedian and sexual predator Knock Yokoyama.) The idea that real women pollute sacred places, even wrestling rings, bodes ill for the acceptance of a reigning empress in Japan any time soon, considering the many Shinto religious rites that a Japanese monarch is expected to perform.

Here, then is Japan's royal dilemma. To permit females to ascend the throne would mean demystifying an ancient ceremony that has never been publicly described let alone witnessed, making a woman head of the national family, still a strange idea to most Japanese, and admitting new, non-Royal blood, in the shape of her husband, to the succession. But if the law is not changed, a popular and politically important monarchy faces extinction. A son born to the Crown Prince and Princess could still postpone the hard choice, maybe for generations, but biology's clock stops for no one, not even dynasties. No wonder Princess Masako these days looks sad and perplexed.

MURRAY SAYLE has lived in Japan since 1975. An earlier version of this article was published in El Pais Semanal, Madrid.

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