A Princess Ever, an Empress Never?

Justine Bornstein


[T]he fantasies are sweet and simple: Prince Charming falls madly in love with the fair maiden, embodiment of all that is feminine and virtuous. She escapes a difficult life of drudgery by riding off into the sunset. Love conquers all and the two live happily ever after.

These days, however, a woman probably has more prospects of flying to the moon than becoming a titled member of one of the few remaining royal families, whose duties are much less glamorous: life in a fishbowl, a 24/7 job more like a civil servant or elected official, requiring a lot of public appearances and saying very little. In the well-known cases of Princess Diana in England and Princess Grace in Monaco, there was no happily ever after. No wonder most modern women would decide that the trade-off was not worth it.


Such was the case with Owada Masako, a young woman too clever and pragmatic to be bowled over by such girlish fantasies. The oldest of three girls, she was a modern-day princess, Daddy‘s Little Girl. Hailing from an elite and tight-knit family that traveled the world accompanying her high-flyer father on his impressive postings abroad for the Japanese Foreign Ministry, she was raised like a son and encouraged to excel. Masako looked set to follow her father‘s path. Her formidable education, and extensive experience abroad put her on an equal track with the men.

Given such promise, her career was her priority when she first met the Crown Prince in 1986. Masako had just passed the grueling entrance exam to the Foreign Ministry, one of two dozen women chosen to become top-level diplomats. Given the substance and scope of her work, and the exceedingly straitlaced strictures of the Japanese Imperial Family, it was not surprising she declined the prince‘s proposal. Twice. She understood that her background did not square well with the demands of Japanese royal life, a monarchy closer in style to Saudi Arabia than, say, Sweden.

Over the years, she racked up a number of professional achievements. In 1988, she was sent off on a two-year stint at Oxford University. She negotiated semiconductor access agreements with the US, translated for senior foreign officials, and wrote speeches for the Prime Minister. She worked long hours and was dedicated to her job.

But the Crown Prince was insistent, and ultimately Masako could not refuse. Pressure was brought to bear from all sides. It was not just Masako who would suffer if she said no again; her career at the Foreign Ministry would be finished, as would be her father‘s. Naruhito‘s single status had gone from being quaintly curious in 1986 to A Matter of Pressing Concern in 1992. Simply put, it was time to get hitched. Being the son of the Sun, and she a mere woman, his wishes took precedence over hers.

Naruhito‘s choice seemed breathtakingly forward-thinking when it was announced, particularly given the staidness of the Japanese Imperial Family. It was hoped that Masako would be able to balance the stultifying role required by the palace and her own character and abilities. She would breathe some life into a stuffy institution, help update it and make it more relevant and resonant to the younger generation, both at home and overseas. While not a glamazon like Princess Di, she was rather a capable career woman, with much more impressive intellectual credentials.


Powerful and secretive, the Imperial Household Agency (Kunaicho) manages every aspect of the individual lives of the royal family, including access, scheduling and events. It is the official interpreter of the imperial legend, and propagates this special status, insisting on a level of control right down to the language used when the royals speak and are spoken to.

The Imperial Household Agency agenda plays to more domestic concerns. As the uber-symbol of all that is quintessentially Japanese, the Imperial Family – and by extension, Kunaicho – draws its most fervent support at the nexus of Shinto, nationalism and hard-core tradition. With their inward-looking focus on Japanese exceptionalism, none of these constituencies are known as being very female-friendly. In particular, Shinto sees women as unclean.

Balancing issues surrounding the past role of the monarchy, and given this support base, it is not surprising Kunaicho does not appreciate internationalism. Like in England after the abdication of Edward VIII, the agency – which re-formed right after WWII but was spared the purges seen in other ministries – felt a need to rehabilitate the image by making the monarchy, and its members, as bland and uncontroversial as possible. Relations with former colonial states may remain rocky, but nowadays, there is nothing to rally around, or any hint of political ambition. The focus is mostly on the traditional.

And so the choice of Owada Masako was too good to be true. While members of the Imperial Family do appreciate her talent, and some, notably Naruhito himself and the Empress, gave her assurances that she could continue her diplomacy and have tried to protect her, the Kunaicho had a much different agenda. It is Kunaicho who calls the shots and their needs prevail. In their eyes, a good princess is a quiet and submissive girl, whose most important role is to bear an heir.

Masako did her best. It is rumored that she was pressured relentlessly – monthly audiences before the Emperor to report on the status of her menstrual cycle, grounded from taking any trips overseas until she produced an heir. Even calls to and from her parents required approval. After a few miscarriages, she did give birth to a baby in 2001. The blessed baby, however, was somewhat of a let down – a girl.

Wait a second. The rules don‘t allow that. Keep on trying. Eventually it was all too much for her and she had a breakdown. As things stood, Masako looked unlikely ever to produce the desired baby boy given her age and still fragile health. The worrisome situation became a full-blown crisis.


So Japan now had two choices: allow women to ascend the throne or find a male heir somewhere. The modernists and traditionalists were squaring off; at that point the traditionalists may have won the battle but would they win the war? By championing reform, then-Prime Minister Koizumi struck a blow for modernity – and also scored points with an important demographic, women and urban voters, that had been suspicious of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He first convened a 10-member advisory council to study the issue of female succession and stacked it with like-minded supporters. Their recommendations were predictable – change the system to allow women to ascend. Koizumi then took steps to introduce a bill to make the recommendations law. The public was generally in support of changing the system to allow a woman to inherit the throne. The problem was, this support is diffuse and somewhat subdued. Sure, it‘s a nice idea but most people just don‘t feel that strongly about it. By contrast, those opposing efforts to reform the system were, and are, much more cohesive and committed. Koizumi‘s efforts provoked a strong backlash. More than 10,000 people gathered at the Budokan in Tokyo to protest the government‘s proposal. The influential Association of Shinto Shrines came out against changing the law. And 173 lawmakers, including many from the LDP, signed a petition urging that any reform proceed with caution. A few petty royals also waded into the debate, opposing reform and suggesting a reinstatement of the noble families.The piece-de-resistance came in late February, when, in a plot twist worthy of a Dynasty season finale, the Imperial Household Agency announced that Princess Kiko, the 38-year old wife of Prince Akishino, was pregnant again. Within a week, all moves to reform the system were rendered moot.The brass knuckles and no-holds-barred tenor of the debate points to how deeply the traditionalists seek to maintain the status quo. The Imperial Family sits as a pawn in a looming tug of war between the modernists and the traditionalists over the preservation of tradition and the role of women. Whatever the sex of the baby (revealed below if you don‘t already know), the discussion looks set to continue for another generation.


At the heart of the discussion is the role of the royal family. Are they Japan‘s first family, a representative of modern Japanese society? Or are they the ne plus ultra of tradition, tasked with being more Japanese than the Japanese?

The Imperial Household Agency – and many of its conservative supporters – clearly prefers the latter. By shrouding the royals in a sanctified mystique and stifling discussion about them, they can conveniently gloss over the many inconsistencies surrounding the institution and its role.

Since the end of the war, the royal family is no longer considered divine yet they are not average citizens like the rest of us. They occupy a strange legal limbo, with no official family registry, no family name, no right to vote or any of the other prerogatives enjoyed by private citizens. No one really questions the inherent unconstitutionality of barring women from becoming empresses when the rest of the nation is committed to gender equality – at least on paper. They are public citizens, completely supported by the state, but about which a vast number of topics are completely off limits.

The Imperial Family is the embodiment of hundreds of years of Japanese tradition, but which tradition specifically? In its handling of the succession issue, the Imperial Household Agency has demonstrated its great sense of history but rather selective memory of it.

With such an extensive archive to draw from, there are many precedents that cover any eventuality. For hundreds of years, the royal family operated in a much more flexible environment than the self-imposed strictures that apply today. The ’unbroken line,‘ widely touted as a reason to exclude females from the throne, survived thanks to concubinage yet hardly anyone is seriously suggesting its return. And why are the eight cases where females did serve as empresses – albeit in a caretaker fashion – not held up as a viable alternative?

Even though Princess Kiko gave birth to a boy, named Hisahito, the debate about the role of women will necessarily continue. While the immediate problem has been solved, what will happen to the royal family when today‘s youngest generation, all women, marry out of the family?

The current crop of males in line for the throne will be gone by the time that Kiko‘s son reaches the age of majority. After Naruhito and Akishino, both fathers of girls, the next in line is Prince Hitachi, the younger brother of the current Emperor. Born is 1935, he has no children. After him comes Prince Mikasa Takahito, the younger brother of the late Showa Emperor. Born in 1915, he is the last surviving member of his generation. He has two sons in line for the throne: Mikasa Tomohito, born in 1946, has two daughters, and Prince Katsura, born in 1948, is unmarried and childless. The youngest son of Mikasa Takahito, Prince Takamado, died in 2002, leaving three daughters but no sons.

So even though the immediate issue of a male heir is resolved, will all the duties now performed by these men and their families fall to one person? In some ways, the dilemma is similar to the issues faced in the shrinking labor force. And the choices seem much the same: will this problem be resolved through automation, immigration or female liberation? Given the nature of the royal family, automation is not a realistic solution (although some wags would say this is already the case!). Given the fears of foreign blood besmirching the hallowed imperial line, as in Hiranuma‘s concern that Princess Aiko, if allowed to be Empress, might fall in love with a “blue-eyed foreigner,” allowing marriage to other royal families outside of Japan looks unpalatable to the die-hards. So that leaves an improved role for the women of the family.

It is ironic, given the efforts the Imperial Household Agency undertakes to promote a sanitized image of the royals, that the Imperial Family most resembles its subjects when in a crisis: Masako‘s hesitation in giving up a good career for marriage; the persistent pressure to have a baby; her difficulty in conceiving; and the disappointment felt by her family that is was not a boy.

Many twenty- and thirty-something Japanese women can relate to her travails as these are dilemmas they now face. Since the 1980s, the birthrate has declined and for the past four years, the rate hits a new low, reaching 1.28 this year. It demonstrates that having a child poses a great burden for women. More than the material costs involved, women are citing social attitudes as reasons. More women have careers that they do not wish to give up to start a family. And they are older when they do decide to start a family. Indeed, infertility is a growing problem among young Japanese; as many as 15 percent of couples are believed to require artificial insemination to conceive.


The issue about a female empress looks set to continue at some point in the future, when the Imperial Family ends up with no young males. By then, popular opinion will likely have swung more in favor of a female monarch. Having exhausted the various options available to it, the Imperial Household Agency may accept its inevitability.

Where possible, it would be best to find a solution that preserves traditions and the monarchy as a symbol of the nation, but also allows it represent the changes seen in social life over the past 20 years, including an increased role for women. This will help make the institution more relevant and resonant to its subjects, who grow increasingly disinterested in dead traditions played out by an ossified and anachronistic symbol of the nation. Far from being a TV-telecast-scripted perfect family, they represent our own trials and tribulations and in their struggles, we recognize our own.

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Justine Bornstein

Author's Bio


Illustration by Tamara Burlando