Five Years Ago: Prince Naruhito’s “Declaration of War” on the IHA

  May 11, 2009 at 7:47 am by

Click here to see the photo at belgapicture

Click here to see the photo at belgapicture

On May 10, 2004, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan was scheduled for a news conference. Nobody expected anything spectacular or even especially interesting from this event. All public relations of the imperial family members are organized by the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) which sets up news conferences only on certain occasions, the most frequent being birthdays and visits of the royals to foreign countries. The journalists who are invited to attend – usually from a carefully selected pool of “court journalists” – ought to submit the questions they are intending to ask weeks in advance to the IHA officials on duty, for approval. The answers that the imperial prince or princess will give are also written down for them by the IHA before the news conference starts. All very well organized, no surprises involved for anybody, the worst thing one could say: that all this might be a little bit boring…

Click here to see the photo at ANP beeldbank

Click here to see the photo at ANP beeldbank

In May 2004, the crown prince was planning a trip to Europe where he was going to attend the royal weddings in Denmark and Spain. It was to be supposed that, on the obligatory press conference, he would discuss the trip’s schedule, make a few remarks concerning the friendly relations to the other royal families and maybe mention what everybody knew already: that his wife, Crown Princess Masako, was not so far recovered yet from her bout with shingles in December 2003 as to be able to accompany him. But his audience was going to be surprised…

The first thing that happened was that nothing happened: the news conference did not start at the appointed time. And this was most unusual, to say the least, for the punctual members of the imperial family. The stupefied journalists could not know that there was a hard fight going on behind the scenes: The crown prince had, of his own accord, added something to his IHA-written manuscript, and now members of his household were desperately trying to dissuade him from actually reading it to the press. But the prince insisted firmly. And, finally, the IHA members decided that it would not improve matters to keep the journalists waiting any longer, only in order to continue repeating an appeal that was obviously of no avail.

So, the press conference started, nearly half an hour past the appointed time, the prince being visibly nervous while answering the first, simple questions. But he redressed himself just in time to address the critical issue. When he was asked about “the health and the prospects” of his wife, he declared that Crown Princess Masako had “completely exhausted herself” in trying to adapt to life in the imperial family. He added that Masako had hoped to use her experience as a diplomat to promote exchanges with other royal families, but that, for several years after their marriage, the crown couple had not been allowed to travel overseas. He went on to say that there had been moves to deny Masako’s career as a diplomat and her personality. He concluded by saying that he felt as though he were “wrenching” himself away as he departed and that he hoped “from his heart” that his wife would be able to join him on future trips. There was dead silence in the room after his speech and, at last, a few members of the completely stunned audience recovered themselves so far as to stammer: “Wha…what?”

Click here to see the photo at gettyimages

Click here to see the photo at gettyimages

Princess Masako had been, before her marriage in 1993, a smart career diplomat, down to earth, vivacious, outgoing. But now, several months after her breakdown in December 2003, she was in a pitiable state: she was suffering from vertigo, headaches, fatigue and apathy. She reacted very sensitively, could neither eat nor sleep and broke into tears at the smallest irritation. She was constantly brooding on past things and was unable to direct her attention to the present or the future. All her strength and beauty were gone.

As an extraordinary exception and only conforming to medical advice – women who marry into the imperial family hardly ever go home to their parents and certainly never stay there for the night – she had been allowed, in March and April 2004, to pass four weeks with her parents at their holiday home in Karuizawa which had, to the great joy of her husband and parents, considerably improved her condition. But then the IHA had declared that they “could no longer guarantee for her safety.” The princess had been obliged to return to the palace where she had, very soon, lapsed into her former state of apathy.

Click here to see the photo at belgapicture

Click here to see the photo at belgapicture

It was this development which had driven her husband to take a desperate measure… He had, before their marriage, vowed to defend and protect Masako for the rest of his life to the utmost of his power. He had always taken great pains to support her and had successfully helped her recover when she had been deeply grieved because of a miscarriage she had suffered in 1999. But the prince understood that her present condition was beyond his abilities. She needed the help of a specialist which, without the consent of the IHA, he was unable to get for her. The imperial bureaucrats were afraid that, if they stopped pretending that all was in order (or would be so very soon), the circumstances of imperial life that had made the princess ill might become publicly known. So, the desperate crown prince decided that it was his last hope to make use of the already scheduled press conference in order to call the public for aid, being fully aware of the mayhem he would cause…

A former chamberlain to the crown prince described his remarks as the equivalent to a declaration of war. A Japanese professor of communications said that this appeal was the most shocking comment from the imperial family since the end of World War II. Some of the consequences that followed were a public scandal that made it even to the world press, divorce rumours for the crown prince and the crown princess being purposefully “leaked” to the media by IHA officials who wanted to get rid of the “useless” princess, and a quarrel in the imperial family that has been carried on for several years by press conferences…

However, now, five years after the notable event, there is reason to hope that the worst is, at last, over. Although Princess Masako’s doctors still warn her from attempting too much and trying too hard lest her recovery might be reversed as a result of overexertion, the number of public functions attended by the princess has been gradually increasing since last autumn. And Prince Naruhito has, during the last years, absolutely refrained from discussing controversial family matters in public (which, unfortunately, is more than could be said of other members of the imperial family…) While still firmly declaring that his wife should be given the opportunity to let her light shine and to realize her mission in life, the prince has done all in his power to re-establish harmony in the family. Especially his birthday press conference last February, in which he offered to “do whatever it takes” to ease the emperor’s burden, has been interpreted as an attempt of the crown prince to bridge the divide that has developed within the imperial family and to make peace with his father.

Click here to read an article about the prince´s birthday press conference 2009

Click here to read an article about the prince's birthday press conference 2009

Emperor Akihito, 75, has last year been receiving treatment for irregular heartbeat and inflammation in his stomach and duodenum. As the emperor’s ailments as well as that of his daughter-in-law (and, bye the bye, also those of his wife, Empress Michiko) have been attributed to various forms of stress caused by the pressuresbof imperial life, it is to be hoped that the crown prince’s offer has finally succeeded in bringing son and ageing father, as well as the rest of the family, closer together.

Read an article about the consequences of the crown prince’s press conference in May 2004.

Watch a video of the crown couple’s 15th wedding anniversary.

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