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The story of a wasted life
on January 25, 2008
Think of the word princess, and more often than not there's the image of a lovely young woman, dressed in a long flowing gown, usually with a pretty little crown or tiara on her head, and a smitten prince at her side. Rarely this romantic view ever goes on to reveal what happens when the celebrations are over and the reality of life settles in.
While the monarchies of the western world have managed somewhat to balance the public's curiosity about royal life and the royal's own need for privacy, there is one monarchy that has remained firmly shuttered to prying eyes. This is the last Imperial house in the world, that of the Japanese. Australian journalist Ben Hills takes a look at one of the more tragic stories of royalty gone awry, and tells it with equal measures of compassion and anger.
Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne tells the unusual story of a young woman, Masako Owada, the daughter of a diplomat who grew up in various cities around the world, and seemed to be heading for an outstanding career of her own. She had been educated at Harvard, spoke more than six languages and was a pretty, rather popular girl who was intent to be the very best. While she was certainly very different than the typical Japanese woman, no one suspected that her life would take a very dramatic turn.
That would occur in 1993, when after a rather stilted courtship following a chance meeting, Crown Prince Naruhito was finally accepted by Masako and she married him in a tradition laiden ceremony in Tokyo. And suddenly, Masako found her life surrounded by protocol, religious duties and the overwhelming pressure to have a child -- specifically, a male child, something that hadn't happened in the Japanese Imperial family for more than forty years.
Ben Hills delves rather far into the mystery surrounding this family, at least as far as a Western journalist can dig, given the interference that the Kunaicho, the Imperial Household Agency, a bureaucracy that controls every aspect of daily life for the Japanese royal family. Hills refers to these shadowy bureaucrats as The Men in Black, a rather sinister connotation. And as we see in the story, the pressure to conform, and not to sully the image that the Kunaicho want to project, is pretty potent.
The ultimate tragedy of the story is Masako herself. It's sad to watch this vital young woman being crushed by a system that simply does not care about her, except as her role as royal broodmare and a pretty picture to wave in front of the masses. We watch her struggle to concieve a child -- and after nearly nine years of disappointment, and possibly through the use of In-Vitro Fertilization, finally gives birth to a daughter, Aiko. There is the pressure to remain silent and self-effacing, and the toll that takes on Masako's health. While rumours persist that she may be in the grip of major depression, and Hills presents convincing evidence that she is, nothing can be really certain if she is or not.
Which gets right down to the criticism of this book. The Japanese publishers suddenly pulled out of various publication deals for a translation once it was announced that the Kunaicho did not approve of it, and censorship reared it's ugly little head. Hills has received death threats, and the response to the publication is detailed in the epilogue that is in the trade paperback edition. Indeed, anything that can be deemed detrimental to the Japanese government, morals, or the Imperial family is regularly censored, rewritten or whitewashed by those in power -- a situation that most Westerners won't, and don't, tolerate.
And regularly Hills makes backhanded swipes at his subject. His description of the Japanese ceremonial and dress verges on the Oh, isn't that cute!, and at times his narrative goes as far as mockery. That's something that I tend to deplore in writing of any kind, showing a snobbish attitude that is downright rude. Too, he litters the story with Australian slang, which is unfamiliar to most American readers, and while there is some sympathy for Masako, there isn't much left over for anyone else caught up in the drama.
Besides the story itself, there are two inserts of photos, one in black and white, the other in colour; as well as a genealogy chart, a map, a list of resources, a glossary of Japanese terms, and an index.
While I was certainly very interested in this story, it comes across more as a gossipy expose rather than a serious study of Japanese court life. So much is left out that all that remains is a damning screed against a culture that seems to be firmly fixed in medieval traditions, liberally laced with restrictions and corruption. It's interesting, but surely, there must be something better than this out there on this topic.
Three and a half stars, rounded up to four. Somewhat recommended, but only to those interested in modern Japanese life and celebrity.