Customer Reviews: Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne
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on January 6, 2007
Australian journalist Ben Hills might as well not have bothered. This is a disappointing second-rate effort at revealing Princess Masako, in fact, very little of anything is revealed. Very little about Harvard-trained Masako Owada, who married into the Japanese Imperial family, and absolutely nothing new about her life as Princess Masako is revealed here. Of course, little enough might have been expected since it's no accident that less is known about the secluded lives of the Japanese imperial family than about any other royal house in history - the iron control of the Kunaicho, the ancient apparatus of functionaries that controls every detail of imperial life, has for 2500 years successfully seen to the absolute secrecy of the dynasty's every move and motivation. Included is way too much uninteresting detail about Masako's businessman father, his typical absentee style of fatherhood and the acquisition of his wealth and position in Japanese society. I can commend the author for his choice of subject - I'd be interested to really learn something of Masako's royal life, but not likely to happen given the petrified nature of the Japanese imperial court and the impenetrable control of the Kunaicho. Two sections of worthwhile photos are included, and a few historical facts about the imperial family. Worse, a completely useless chapter called 'The Last Emperor' details statistically the ruin of royal houses during the 20th century. Boring. Beautiful cover formal photograph of Princess Masako. The book is naturally attractive, attractiveness unrequited once you open its pages. If you know nothing of the Japanese imperial family, you might find the book somewhat useful. Skip it if you're looking for fresh information not already available from other sources.
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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.
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on January 19, 2007
Hills' book combines most of what is already available in English-language newspapers and magazines on Princess Masako's sad life in the royal family. There are some glaring errors. One in particular that stood out to me was the misinformation about past female emperors. Michigan University historian Hitomi Tonomura has written a very interesting article (available online from the Wilson Center special issue on the royals in Japan) on the substantial influence wielded by the former female emperors; they were not merely standing in until a suitable male appeared as Hills contends. Will negative foreign publicity about the constrained lives of the Japanese royals push the Imperial Household Agency into giving them more freedom? Doubtful.
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Even though Britain's royals get all the press, dysfunctional families are not solely in their domain. Witness the foreboding situation in Japan where the Imperial Household Law of 1947 dictates that only a male heir can ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and then imagine the scrutiny under which the Crown Princess Masako has had to live until she was able to conceive a child. Australian journalist Ben Hills makes an interesting though ultimately superficial attempt at depicting the damaging impact that public pressure has had on the princess since she married the Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993. It is Hills' lack of direct access to the inner workings of the palace that diminishes his book into a lot of arm's-length speculation on what is perceived as the princess' fragile state of mind.

What the author does well is paint a vivid picture of the restrictive requirements of being a royal in Japan. So much of the story sounds eerily similar to Diana's story since both were their father's daughters who represented an attractive combination of contemporary and traditional traits that made them viable candidates for not only a publicly endorsed marriage but also immediate motherhood given the aging bachelors that their husbands-to-be were. While Diana delivered two boys in relatively short order, Masako was unable to conceive a child until she was 37, nine years into her marriage and only after an intensive series of in-vitro fertilization treatments. However, she disappointed the Japanese by having a girl, Princess Aiko. Five years later, she faced further humiliation by seeing her younger sister-in-law Princess Kiko gave birth to a son, Hisahito, thus making questions about Aiko's ascendancy to the exalted position of Crown Empress moot.

All the while, according to Hills, Masako was silently suffering for her decision to forego her career aspirations as a diplomat. Unlike Diana, who was just twenty when she married, Masako was nearly thirty, extremely well-educated with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, fluent in five languages, and had already worked at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and regularly met world leaders. Consequently, her personal sacrifices had greater depth. The post-partum contrast is even more stark. While Diana became a glamorous worldwide celebrity, Masako has apparently been sinking further into depression, shunning public events with no hope of changing a life based on a purely ceremonial role independent of governmental decisions. Moreover, the rigors of keeping step with the 1,000-person Imperial Household Agency must be taking its toll. But Hills can merely speculate with his unauthorized biography, even though he does bring up valid questions on the relevance of royalty in a world where identities are molded by personal accomplishments.
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on February 21, 2007
I had looked forward to reading this book because of its catchy title and graphics. When I received my copy, I found that it was easy to read and I finished it in one sitting. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed after I was done. I had anticipated that the book would contain more new information than it actually did. Many of the allegations in the book have already been the topic of public speculation. To be fair to the author, however, for a reader who has no previous knowledge whatsoever about the Japanese Imperial Throne, this book may prove to be a fascinating glimpse into an unknown world.

I do feel the title of the book is misleading. Princess Masako is overly portrayed as a victim, with the Imperial Household Agency cast as the aggressor. The Chrysanthemum Throne (the Imperial Household Agency) did not force Masako Owada at gunpoint to marry the Crown Prince. While I do not wish Princess Masako any ill will, the decision to completely abandon any personal plans she may have had for herself for the rest of her life (and that is what one must do if they wish to marry into the Imperial Family) was one that she herself arrived at. Until the Second World War, it was a common lot for many women of all socio-economic classes in Japan to be expendable pawns used for the benefit of their family; although it is not common these days, perhaps that is what took place in this situation, whereby Princess Masako did not wish to be a stumbling block in the career path of her father. For a woman as highly intelligent and well-educated as she is, I absolutely cannot believe that she would have been as naive or uninformed as to believe that she could single-handedly reverse over a millenia of tradition and somehow create a diplomatic role for herself that resembled in any way, shape or form one that she may have attained had she not married the Crown Prince and remained a career woman. If she truly did believe she could, perhaps she was a little too full of herself. As painful as the reality of her current existence may be, it is a choice she herself made. In other words, she has made her own bed, so now she must lie in it.
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on May 30, 2007
I realize Hills didn't have a whole lot of authenicated material for this book, but some of the inaccuracies - well, really! Kids dressing in gangsta clothes in the 70s?!? That's what Hills maintains when Masako first started school in the US.

I was constantly puzzled by the author's efforts to appear unbiased. 'Poor Masako,' was one message. 'Her family background is somewhat suspect, and her father is a social climber. tee hee,' was another (and snide) message. The different in height between the Crown Prince and Crown Princess was also noted. To what end? Hills see-saws back and forth between trying to appear a legitimate, serious author and a gossip columnist.

I wish Hills had spent some time explaining, for us gai-jins, the role and upbringing of the woman in Japanese society. Until very recently, all Japanese female names ended in 'ko,' which means 'child' - Keiko, Masako, Aiko, etc. While this may sound minor, it is indicative of how women are perceived in Japan. (My former husband, who spent a lot of time in Japan, was once chided by a Japanese man for being too polite to women.) It would, I think, help to explain Masako's difficulty in her, IMHO, schizophrenic life.

All in all, if such a book had to be written, I should prefer to have Kitty Kelley tackle the subject. She, at least, is a zippy writer, and this book definitely lacks zip.
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on January 4, 2007
I was very disappointed. Poorly researched, poorly written and there's nothing new. It's been well known that Masako suffers from depression.

It is full of mistakes, mostly minor, but it shows the author's lack of attention to detail and lack of basic research. For example the current Crown Prince wasn't the first Japanese royal to study overseas. Or crown prince anywhere in the world is addressed as Your Royal Highness. Your Majesty is reserved strictly for the sovereign only. Or Emperor Hirohito chose Showa - peace - as the name of his reign when he became the emperor long before the war. It's not the name he was given posthumously, just as the current emperor Akihito will be known as Heisei Emperor.

They are minor, but so many! They makes you wonder about the author's so-called 'research', or lack of understanding of the subject matter.
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on January 15, 2009
What a sad story! And what an insightful picture of the agency which controls the lives of the so-called Imperial Family. I say "so-called" because it becomes very clear that they rule over nothing, much less an empire. They don't even control their own lives. One can only conclude from this book that he whole purpose of the monarchy is to provide sinecures for the old nobility and traditional jobs for their descendants. The whole thing is a pointless enterprise that drives outsiders crazy--Empress Michiko and Crown Princess Masako-- and makes dull dunderheads of the heritors of this tradition.
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on May 13, 2010
This book is entertaining. But it is written in other review, there are some minor 'error'. For example, Japanese birth rate problem is certainly not related to Japan's being behind in IVF technology. Many Japanese do not like to have the idea of having many children, many of them are reluctant because of economical reason.
Throughout the book, there are many misunderstandings, misinterpretation of particularly Japanese culture and values, and in general Asian culture & values, which are very typical of Western view to Asian culture.
I do not deny that Princess Masako is suffering, and Kunaicho might have to be blamed for her suffer.
But most of Asian still think that keeping the tradition is still an important thing in life. If you go to Bali for example, be careful not to step on flowers and food laid on the pedestrians in front of shops . Balinese will be outraged if you destroy their carefully selected offerings for gods. We think that being religious is something beautiful and necessary.
Some of our traditions or values might be weird to westerner, as we also feel weird to some of westerner's behavior . But , we have to respect the difference, don't we?
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on March 12, 2010
Many parts of this book read like a tabloid. Yes, Masako doesn't have a very easy life. She had already rejected a marriage proposal from Haruhito, but later on she capitulated, and as such, had to give up the free life she led as a diplomat. It's hard to not feel bad for her when you think about her former lifestyle and the kind of life she leads now, especially with her breakdowns. I do wish that the Diet would change the rules of succession so that primogeniture would be equal, rather than male-based, because it's terrible that she's so stressed over the pressure of bearing an male heir. Even though Japan has advanced well socially and technologically, women are still set back in many parts. A Prince isn't penalized for marrying an commoner, but a Princess loses her rank and status if she does (like Haruhito's sister)

As interesting as this book might be for some people, there's not really much that's new in this book. Most of the information here can be freely accessed and found elsewhere, and is presented here with a more biased feel. If you're really interested in this book, you're better borrowing it from a library or a friend, or simply doing your own research online.
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