A royal crisis, Japanese style

There may be no adultery, divorce, or public bickering, but Japan's secretive royal family has troubles that threaten its own survival.
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Sometime next Sunday, a discreetly but immaculately dressed Japanese man will disembark at an airport somewhere in Western Europe on a very special mission. His name, unknown to all but a few of his countrymen, is Tadayuki Makino, and his business card bears the title of Senior Counsellor, Imperial Household Agency. Mr Takino is both a top civil servant and a high-ranking courtier to one of the most closed and secretive royal institutions in the world. His objectives are several, but high among them is one of the utmost delicacy and sensitivity: to gather information on how to prevent the extinction of the most ancient hereditary monarchy in the world.

Last week, officials of the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) confirmed to the Independent what has been speculatively suggested for some time - that, 226 years after the accession of the last Japanese Empress, Go- Sakuramachi, the government is cautiously studying the possibility of changing the law so that another woman could succeed 62-year-old Emperor Akihito to the throne. In a series of meetings with his opposite numbers in the royal households of Holland, Belgium and Denmark, Mr Makino will discuss a number of issues of mutual interest, including financing, public relations, and royal medical care. But he will also, particularly with aides to Belgium's Queen Beatrix and Denmark's Queen Margrethe, want to talk about royal women - how they behave, how they are viewed by their people, and how long-established laws can be altered to accommodate them.

The Imperial Household Agency has gathered documents from Buckingham Palace but Mr Makino will not be visiting London this time around - the principle of a reigning queen, agency officials explain, has been too long enshrined here for it to be a helpful comparison in the Japanese case. (Denmark's Constitution, on the other hand, was amended by referendum as late as 1953 to allow the succession of the much-loved Margrethe.) This is a pity, for the idea of a Buckingham Palace-Imperial Household Agency summit is an intriguing one: even if Mr Makino came away with nothing useful, the British would find much to ponder in the Japanese method of royal family management.

Royal crises have to be seen in perspective; placed alongside those of the House of Windsor, the problems of the Chrysanthemum Throne are piffling in comparison. Japan's biggest headache at the moment concerns its two young princes, the Crown Prince Naruhito, and his brother, Fumihito. The senior, after three years of marriage to Princess Masako, still shows no signs of producing a child; the junior has two children, but both are little girls, ineligible under the present constitution to succeed to the throne, or even maintain their royal status after marriage. No member of the Imperial Family has produced a male child in 30 years; but the princes are both young men, and any succession crisis remains several decades in the future.

Compared to the royal bonfire raging in Britain, Japan is a royal paradise. A cosy symbiotic relationship between the Household Agency and its imperial correspondents ensures a respectful and compliant media. Republicanism is virtually unheard of as a political creed. And, in return for a modest, almost austere, government stipend (Emperor Akihito and his immediate family last year received between them a mere 290m yen - pounds 1.8m - and possess personally very little private property or assets), Japan's imperials oblige by behaving as models of thrift and rectitude.

Once a year, the Emperor attends the national athletic meeting; twice a year, the family opens the palace gates to wave at the crowd from behind a panel of bullet-proof glass (introduced after an embarrassing incident when a disgruntled subject slung a large pebble at his Emperor). Individual members are fond of planting trees and Emperor and Empress put in a polite, if somewhat tardy appearance after last year's Kobe earthquake. But in all their public appearances, they are meticulous in their reluctance to say, do, or provoke anything in the least controversial. Of royal scandal, there is scarcely a snicker.

That Britain's monarchy should look grimy in comparison with the small monarchies of Europe is perhaps no surprise. But to have outsleazed Japan is, to anyone over 60, a remarkable achievement. During the war, Emperor Akihito's father, Hirohito, was an emblem of villainous cruelty on a par with Hitler and Mussolini; in 1945 he narrowly escaped trial on capital war crimes charges. That his son should have achieved such respectability is a miracle attributable entirely to men like the envoy Mr Makino.

Since the end of the war, Japan's mighty bureaucracies have achieved many astounding feats. The Ministry of Finance turned a bankrupt pauper nation into the greatest banking nation on earth. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry squeezed out of the bombed ruins of Japanese industry the world's biggest trade surplus. And the Imperial Household Agency transformed one of the most reviled monarchies on earth into the dull, stable, benign institution it is today. It has achieved this by means exactly opposite to those which have precipitated the decline of the House of Windsor. While one has plunged in popular estimation by ever increasing openness, the other has flourished by hermetically sealing itself against the outside world, and by purging its members of all human characteristics with something approaching ruthlessness.

The figure who illustrates the sacrifices of this strategy is the Crown Prince's wife, Princess Masako. Her husband's childlessness is only the latest in a series of worries caused by the 36-year-old Prince. Three years ago, well past the age at which future Emperors are expected to find a bride, he was still unmarried. The problem was twofold: for a start, of the list of aristocratic ladies deemed worthy by the Agency, none seemed willing to give up their lives for one of stifling imperial protocol. Most importantly of all, the Prince himself was not interested in any of them. He had fallen in love, deeply and seemingly hopelessly, with Masako Owada, the daughter of a senior diplomat, herself a high-flying careerist in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Masako met the Prince in 1986, and had already turned him down once, before heading off to Oxford to add another degree to the two she already had from Harvard and Tokyo University. When it became clear that he would settle for no other, the Imperial machine went into action. Via high-level connections, Masako's father was prevailed upon to persuade his daughter to see the prince once again. Twice more she resisted his proposals; then in December 1992 she yielded.

The Prince was delighted; Masako admitted on TV that "it would be untrue to say that I have no anxiety". But as preparations for the summer ceremony proceeded, low-key imperial wedding fever took Japan. Medallions of the young couple were struck. There were Masako noodles and Masako haircuts. Analytical opinion was divided. Here, to be sure, was an exceptional and unusual Japanese: a single woman, with an international education, five languages to her name, and a flourishing career in an overwhelmingly male dominated field. Yet, apparently against her better judgement, she found herself requisitioned by the most conservative and inward-looking institution in the country. Either this was going to represent a triumph for progressive Japanese womanhood - a foothold in the last bastion of tradition - or an utter defeat.

The alternatives became clear at the couple's engagement press conference. Traditionally such occasions are little more than a photo call with a formulaic question and answer session, but Masako rattled royal protocol with a series of alarmingly unscripted remarks. Asked how many children the couple planned to have, the Prince gave the right answer: "As many as the stork brings." The Princess-to-be's answer was decidedly more knowing. "I know the Crown Prince likes music," she smiled, "but please don't ask for enough to form an orchestra." At the end of the conference, imperial clock-watchers produced an alarming statistic. While the Prince had spoken for an appropriately regal 9 minutes and 9 seconds, his wife to be held the floor for a full 28 seconds longer.

The Imperial establishment was outraged. "I felt she was a bit too impudent," said a former lord chamberlain. "It will be quite enough for her to say one word for every three uttered by the Crown Prince. No more walking in front of him. I hope she will deport herself with utmost humility."

So it has been. Since 9 June 1993, when Masako Owada, trussed in a 12- layered kimono, became Princess Masako, a curtain has closed around her. Apart from one solo speaking engagement, she has never appeared in public without her husband, not so much low-profile as no-profile. Her written answers to reporters' questions have been bromides. Last month at a press conference on his birthday, the Prince was asked again about the prospects for Imperial offspring. He replied in familiar terms. "The stork," he said, "seems to be fond of a quiet environment." The Princess smiled and said nothing.

What, if anything, all of this portends is difficult to say. Optimists might look to the arrival of a child, or the rise of a new generation of younger Imperial bureaucrats to bring with them change. Neither, for the time being, is on the cards. Mr Makino and his colleagues can look from Europe to Japan with satisfaction at their achievement: an Imperial institution as a puppet show, pure form and no substance, irreproachably shorn of personality - the ideal monarchy, perhaps, perfectly suited for survival long into its fourth millennium.