Imperial Intrigue in Tokyo

March 9, 2005 |
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Japan's media have carried an "official apology" by Crown Prince Naruhito -- available at: japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?nn20050303f1.htm> -- to his parents. Last May, the Crown Prince made the public comment, "It is true that there were developments that denied (Crown Princess) Masako's career as a diplomat as well as her personality."

Allegedly, this statement triggered icy relations between the Chiyoda Palace, occupied by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and the Akasaka Palace, occupied by the crown prince and his wife. In fact, Imperial Household staff shorthand references to the emperor and his son by just calling them "Chiyoda" and "Akasaka."

But it may well be that Naruhito's mom and dad are not so upset. What has happened is that the Imperial Household Agency -- the massive, largely secret bureaucracy that manages the affairs of Japan's imperial family -- was irritated by the crown prince's honesty, and lapse of protocol.

How to explain the Imperial Household Agency's behavior about this seemingly innocuous statement? To Western eyes, it appeared as an endearing admission from Japan's next emperor that lives lived on the other side of the imperial moat can be stifling and exhausting. But the imperial bureaucracy's resistance to such modern honesty reveals its desire to keep the imperial institution lurking in Japan's political system in case the opportunity for "imperial revival" presents itself in the future.

Japan's emperor has rarely been a powerful force unto himself (or herself -- as there have been female emperors in Japan's ancient past) but has always been an important instrument of legitimacy for whatever force was ruling Japan. There have been times, however, where the emperor did emerge as a powerful player -- as in the case of the Meiji emperor -- and the Imperial Household sees itself as cocooning the imperial line until such a case arises again.

This has kept the imperial household a favorite of right-wing zealots in Japan, and individuals, journalists, politicians, or other social leaders who publicly question whether the Imperial Household should exist -- or disparage the emperor or imperial system in any way -- run a real risk of being beaten up, or even killed, by imperial institution-loving thugs.

The antics that have played out between imperial dad and son only add to the worst side of Japan's imperial mystique. And it is my view that the emperor himself is a puppet of these bureaucrats and that the imperial family itself is caught in the intrigue of the staff surrounding this family.

For years, Empress Michiko was treated badly by her in-laws, Hirohito, the Showa emperor and his wife, who detested Michiko's commoner status. I have had the opportunity to meet the emperor and empress a couple of times -- usually at cultural events in Japan, once at an art tribute to woodblock print artist Yoshihiro Mori and another time at a reception and dinner for the 75th Anniversary of the America-Japan Society in Tokyo.

I took former California governor George Deukmejian, who happened to be in Tokyo, to that America-Japan Society dinner and found myself automatically upgraded to a far better table than I would have had alone and got to attend the reception preceding the dinner with Emperor Akihito and his wife. Former president Jimmy Carter was there.

When the imperial couple, who were smiling and bowing, shaking hands, even, worked through the room and got to me -- with Carter just standing to my right (and I knew that the imperial couple was moving towards him, not me), I mentioned the name of a woman, Noriko Matsumoto -- a really wonderful person who worked on my staff at the Japan America Society of Southern California in Los Angeles and who had left Japan after a terrible divorce and raised her young daughter alone in America. I had heard that Noriko had been in school with the empress -- so I decided to be indiscreet and ask about this.

When I mentioned Noriko's name, the empress's face got all contorted, and she actually grabbed my arm with both of her hands, looking close into my face, and said "Noriko, Noriko ... where is she? How is she?" Jimmy Carter then commented from the side -- somewhat irritated, I think, that I had preempted the quick move of the couple to him -- that "this Noriko must really be something."

My point in recounting this anecdote is that the empress seemed desperate for a connection to her past and seemed in that moment as if she were near some kind of breakdown herself. The emperor was very kind, smiled, shook hands, but he was not indifferent at all to his wife and her obvious concern for Noriko Matsumoto. Not too long after that, the empress lost her voice and stopped speaking to anyone for a very long time.

There are responsibilities and pressures of living as a member of the Imperial Household that became obvious to me then -- and it was clear to me in my moment at that reception with Empress Michiko that this family knows how important "humanity" and human connections are. That is one of the reasons I just don't buy the notion that the parents are angry at Naruhito for expressing concern about his wife's circumstances and her sacrifices to be a part of their family.

I knew Masako Owada pretty well when she worked at Japan's Foreign Ministry and got in some hot water for jokingly calling her "damn stubborn" when the Los Angeles Times asked me about her. I meant this comment only in the best of senses and with admiration, actually, because she was tenacious and very smart.

In a somewhat crass article about Masako's engagement to the crown prince, the Los Angeles Times ran this 1993 clip in a really silly article:

--

* And Masako, don't sell out.

"At least one acquaintance of yours doesn't believe you'll buckle under imperial pressure to conform. 'Damn stubborn' is the way Steve Clemons -- executive director of the Japan America Society of Southern California -- affectionately describes you. 'She isn't going to last long in all of these little knickknacks that they're going to try to fit her into.'

"Other watchers of the Chrysanthemum Throne think you've already caved -- that you were lost as soon as you donned the pillbox hat and the dowdy yellow dress. 'She will suffocate if no one gives her a chance to open her window,' says Joi Takei, a Japanese film producer living in Los Angeles.

"But Clemons believes you're in the power position: 'I give her three years and she's going to start knocking down walls.'

--

My point at the time was that I thought that Masako Owada's tough backbone and independence would be something that finally brought the sprawling, self-indulgent Imperial Household bureaucracy to heel.

I was completely wrong -- and I feel quite badly that Japan has so overtly and symbolically stifled the dynamism and independence of a brilliant, career-minded woman who in her imperial role might have revolutionized the position of women in Japan and might have helped restore the importance of "merit" in a system corrupted by age-old personal networks.

If Naruhito's dad was ticked off by his son's comment about the pressures his wife must have felt giving up her career aspirations, then his father has done a major disservice to all Japanese women. But again, I just don't buy it. These bureaucrats who work vigorously to maintain an other-worldly aura and mystique around the Imperial Household, create tension in a model of Japanese democracy that can accept a transparent constitutional monarchy -- but the characteristic opaqueness of this system is clearly at odds with democracy.

Crown Princess Michiko may get her revenge -- and I hope she will raise her daughter, Aiko, to have the same stubborn brilliance she has. And with no other male prospect on line, Japan may just revise its Imperial Household Law to allow a woman to ascend the throne as empress. Most Japanese would like to see this done.

When Emperor Akihito was installed, 14 Japanese female attorneys sued the government arguing that the Imperial Household Law that prohibited women from becoming emperor was unconstitutional. They cited Article 14 of Japan's Constitution, which states:

(1) All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status, or family origin.

(2) Peers and peerage shall not be recognized.

(3) No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration, or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.

I never heard what happened to their lawsuit -- which meant that it probably went nowhere.

It is time that Japan's elected legislators came to Masako's rescue. It is time that they pried open the walls of secrecy that surround Japan's imperial system -- and made the institution more democracy-friendly than it is in its current form.

Michiko and Masako should rebel and just walk out across their respective moats and start campaigning for "healthy families" in Japan -- which includes women living more fulfilling lives in careers they choose and ending the political correctness about women subordinating themselves in male-dominated corporations -- and imperial families.

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