Crown Princess Masako, wearing a stunning pale yellow kimono decorated with leaves of russet and gold, turned heads at Emperor Akihito’s autumn party at the Akasaka Imperial Gardens in central Tokyo on November 9.
A major event on the calendar of the imperial family, this year’s party was more significant than most as it marked the last time the emperor and Empress Michiko will attend, given his upcoming abdication from the Chrysanthemum Throne on April 30 next year.
The occasion was especially significant because Crown Princess Masako – who will become empress in just four months – stayed until the very end. For the last 15 years, she has been battling a stress-related illness and was either unable to attend or chose to slip away before the reception concluded.
Ten days after the party, the prince and princess went to a ceremony in the western Tokyo suburb of Chofu where they met local children involved in a tree-planting campaign. The princess spoke with a number of the children and thanked them for their work to protect the environment.
Two public engagements in such a short time suggest the princess is determined to overcome the issues that have plagued her as she prepares to take on the duties and responsibilities of an empress.
While the question remains largely unspoken in Japanese society – which has great respect for its monarchy and a good deal of sympathy for the struggles a fellow commoner has experienced after marrying into the imperial family – there are inevitably concerns over how the princess will cope once she is elevated to empress.
“From the outside, it looks very much as if the princess and the Imperial Household Agency are carefully managing her public appearances as we get closer to the abdication of the emperor and it is likely that her schedule is being arranged according to her health on any given day,” said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of media and communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.
“The princess has had this condition for many years now so it is likely she has learned how to work with her situation,” he said, suggesting the palace party was a test of her resilience in an unfamiliar and unpredictable setting.
The fact she stuck it out to the very end has to be a good sign, according to Watanabe.
“I think that ordinary people today are less focused on her health because it has been many years and they have become accustomed to the fact that she is not often seen in public,” he said. “That is likely to change given the princess’ changing role in the imperial family, so this will be a new time for both her and the Japanese people. We can only hope that it goes smoothly.”
A commoner who was educated at Oxford and Harvard universities, Masako Owada was on the fast track to success in Japan’s foreign ministry when she was identified as the future wife of the prince. It reportedly took three approaches from the palace before she would consent to marrying a man destined to become emperor.
Eight years after their marriage, in June 1993, the announcement that the princess was pregnant was greeted with an outpouring of national joy – particularly in the corridors of the palace, where no male heir had been born since 1965.
Public delight at the birth of a healthy child was tempered by the news the baby was a girl, and therefore not eligible to carry the imperial line forward.
The decline in the princess’ physical well-being was linked to the need for the world’s longest-lived imperial dynasty – dating back some 2,600 years – to have a son. The pressure from the Imperial Household Agency, the media speculated, was the cause of her mental ill health. Crown Prince Naruhito has hinted in veiled comments he also blames the agency – the real power behind the throne – for his wife’s illness.
The issue of an heir was solved when Prince Akishino, the crown prince’s younger brother, had a son in September 2006. Yet the princess was still unable to shake her illness and there were concerns she may have unwittingly passed on the stresses of imperial life to her daughter, Princess Aiko, who missed spells at school after finding it difficult to come to terms with the “boisterous” behaviour of some of the other children in her class.
In some ways, however, the crown princess is following in the footsteps of Empress Michiko, who was also a commoner when she married Prince Akihito in 1959 and became empress in November 1990, after the death of Emperor Hirohito.
“It is known that the present empress also struggled with the Imperial Household Agency, but she did bring about a lot of change inside the imperial family,” Watanabe said. “She was the one who insisted, for example, that she would raise her children, while previously that was the task of maids, so she brought a great deal of normal life to the palace.
“I think it is also quite clear that she is a strong-minded woman,” he said, pointing to her repeated expressions of concern for the survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck northeast Japan.
“I’m not sure that Princess Masako has the same character as the empress and it is probably not fair to compare the two women as they come from very different backgrounds and they live in very different times,” Watanabe said.
“I think that all Japan hopes that the crown princess will be able to cope with the new duties that will come with her being empress and I believe she will have developed systems to do that. I am sure that the crown prince, as he has done in the past, will do everything he can to shield her from the pressures of the position.”