Photo of Princess Kako leaked onto Internet

  June 11, 2009 at 11:41 am by

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A former classmate of Princess Kako at Gakushuin Primary School apparently posted an unauthorized photograph of the princess in a diary on the member-based social networking site Mixi. In the following days, the photo was leaked over the Internet. Fourteen-year-old Princess Kako is the second daughter of Prince Akishino, the younger son of Japan’s Emperor Akihito, and his wife, Princess Kiko. According to the source, the photo showed Princess Kako wearing a Gakushuin’s Junior High School uniform and had probably been taken by her former classmate at a school festival or similar event.

The school has reportedly spoken to the boy about the issue. The photo has already been deleted. It has neither been confirmed that the photo actually is of Princess Kako nor is there any official information given on how the boy obtained the photograph.

And it is these comments (or non-comments) that make the really interesting part of this piece of news (together with the idea of a photograph of Princess Kako smiling shyly in her school uniform, which is really one of the most innocuous and uncontroversial sights imaginable) as they provide an insight into structures that are quite typical for the way in which public comments on the imperial family are usually handled in Japan. Gakushuin public relations officials as well as Noriyuki Kazaoka, Vice-Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Agency, refuse to confirm what is already obvious to everybody. Still, in its report the newspaper Mainichi carefully avoids to question their statements, namely that the photo might actually show somebody else than Princess Kako and that it is unknown how the boy got this photo (whomever it might represent).

The first is obviously nonsense: if the photo had not been of Princess Kako but of some other girl, Mainichi would never have run the story. (If they wanted to cover all stories about girls whose photos are, with or without their consent, being posted into the Internet, they would have no time left to do anything else.) In addition, it is well known to everybody from officially released pictures what Princess Kako looks like, and any Japanese journalist could probably tell within a second if a photo actually is of her or not. And second: if the boy is a former classmate of Princess Kako and has said that the boys’ and girls’ junior high schools often get together at school festivals and other events (which he has), there is no point in pretending that nobody knows how he got this photo.

This is an opportunity to clearly demonstrate the difference between the public treatment of Japanese and, say, British royals. Everybody would probably agree that royals and especially young royals should have a right to privacy, and nobody would appreciate it if, say, a classmate of Prince Harry had taken a snapshot of the prince in underwear and had posted it in the Internet. Still, in Japan, the UK and elsewhere, things do happen sometimes even if nobody appreciates them. So, if this had happened in the UK, in spite of its impropriety, it would have been duly criticized. The photo would haved been deleted and the classmate properly scolded. But it would not have been pretended that the whole story never took place at all. It would simply have made no sense whatsoever to deny that it, unfortunately, did happen and that it was, indeed, Harry in underwear, given the fact, that already thousands of people would have seen the picture in the Internet. At least, it would have made no sense from a non-Japanese point of view….

Japanese media are very cautious with addressing controversial issues in general, but this attitude becomes the more rigid, the closer the subject is situated to the imperial family. This is partly due to the institution of the Imperial Household Agency press club. The journalists registered in this club have exclusive access to briefings by agency officials and imperial family members, and usually prepare their questions collectively before submitting them for vetting, shunning most sensitive issues. Kenichi Asano, professor of journalism at Doshisha University says: “The Japanese media industry in general is hopelessly bad at what it does, but the IHA press club shows the worst aspects of the Japanese media. The journalists there are not doing their job of informing the Japanese public about what goes on.”

Correspondents of foreign newspapers are often observed with distrust by the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) as the agency has no means of keeping them under control. David McNeill, foreign correspondent of the Irish Times in Tokyo, reports that, when the emperor and empress were once to travel to Ireland and Norway, he had been granted the privilege of asking two questions in the routine press conference that had been organized on the occasion: “I wanted to quiz the emperor on his opinion about the compulsory singing of the national anthem at school ceremonies. As I rose to speak, an Imperial Household Agency (IHA) official signaled to the phalanx of TV cameras at the back of the room and they stopped filming and left. “They are worried that as a foreigner you might ask something that might embarrass his majesty,’ said the Japanese journalist beside me.”

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At this point, one could ask what it was that IHA officials should have been so very afraid of, as McNeill had submitted the question he was intending to ask weeks in advance and as the emperor’s answer to it had been carefully written down by IHA officials before the news conference started. (This is the regular practice with imperial press conferences, no matter if the questioning journalists be Japanese or foreigners.) But McNeill says that the problem was that, if he had dared to put a different question than the intended, the IHA would have had nothing to punish him with for his trespass. A Japanese journalist could have been kicked out of the press club in a similar case or even get fired for not abiding by the rules. In fact, photographer Toshiaki Nakayama was in 1990 banned from the imperial household when he released an enchanting photograph of Princess Kiko brushing aside Prince Akishino’s hair, taken before the couple posed for their formal wedding portrait. By this incident, Japanese journalists were reminded to think twice before they did anything that the stiff IHA bureaucrats might not approve of. But the same would not go for foreign correspondents and that means, as McNeill expresses it, that “the presence of somebody from outside the system threatens to disrupt the carefully rehearsed dance between the Imperial Palace and the press that covers it”.

This results in the fact that it is usually the foreign press that will go first in addressing controversial issues concerning the imperial family, such as the rumor about Princess Aiko being the product of in-vitro fertilization or about Princess Masako’s depression. But, one might ask, where are foreign journalists getting this sort of insider information from? Says The Times-correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry: “I have great respect for Japanese journalists who I count as colleagues and friends. I couldn’t work without the work already done by these people.” Although the bureaucrats of the Imperial Household Agency as well as Japan’s newspaper managers are very conservative and afraid of the ultra-right, although the whole system is organised in a way that effectively stifles any debate on issues related to the imperial family, all this does not exclude that the individual journalists belonging to the system are sometimes very frustrated by the taboos that prevent them from performing the essential job of a journalist: to inform the public.

One imperial correspondent for a major Japanese newspaper said: “I probably put in writing less than one-tenth of one-percent of what I see and hear. For a writer, that’s a kind of torture. It’s a real struggle to slow yourself down and just learn to watch.” One of his colleagues even believes that “reporters should leak information when it is important and they cannot get it published” because he deems it to be “a public service because there are many publications that don’t have access”. One might feel that he has a point when becoming aware that this suffocating censorial system which pretends to protect the sacred personality of the tenno is silencing not only plain commoner journalists but even this sacred personality himself.

The current Emperor Akihito is a peace-loving man. At the end of World War II, there was a plot to kidnap him, take him to a remote location and continue the war in his name. This must have been traumatic for the boy who was but eleven years at the time. But his apparent desire to live in harmony with Japan’s Asian neighbours and to make them forget, if possible, the disastrous past of war and colonialism is probably not only due to this experience but even more to his strong sense of responsibility.

In the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, Japan had, as part of a very successful attempt to remain independent from Western imperialism, led several wars of aggrandizement. In 1910, it annexed Korea that suffered severely under the occupation. With this historical background, it was very meaningful that, on December 18, 2001 Emperor Akihito spoke in detail about his own Korean roots. He said he read in an eighth-century official history document that the mother of Emperor Kammu (736-806) was a descendant of Muryeong, the 25th king of Baekje, one of three ancient kingdoms on the peninsula. Not surprisingly, the speech was front-page news in Korea. The huge majority of Japanese newspapers, in the meantime, completely ignored it. Only two mentioned it at least on their inside pages: the Asahi and Sankei. And the only reason for this was probably that they document all press conferences on their websites anyway, which resulted in the information making it also into the newspaper. Prof. Asano comments: “The newspapers here were too worried about the implications of that speech and the reaction from nationalists so they ignored it.”

Crown Prince Naruhito was once asked by a journalist if he had ever met with difficulties as his scientific interest was tending more in the direction of human sciences whereas, in the imperial family, his father and grandfather had initiated a tradition of natural science research. The prince’s answer was remarkable. He said that, to his mind, there were “great similarities between both the natural and human sciences” and that his father and grandfather taught him “the importance and pleasure of seeking out the truth independently of their own fields”. Modern Japanese as well as foreign observers may feel sceptic when Japan’s right wingers call the emperor Japan’s “spiritual core” and affirm that he possesses “a divine existence.” But they would certainly not fail to admire the scientific clarity of mind and the love for truth that have been passed on in the imperial family for at least three generations now. It is a pity that Japan’s leading powers are obviously lacking the ability to appreciate these impressing qualities and even go so far as to prevent the tenno from speaking freely to his people.

Click here to read an article about the imperial family by David McNeill.

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