'Sick' princess accused of slacking – and scoffing

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The Independent Online

Four years after Princess Masako of Japan withdrew from a public role citing a mysterious illness, the tabloid press is beginning to wonder aloud: is the reclusive royal slacking at taxpayers' expense?

Horse-riding sessions, shopping trips and gourmet dinners at top Tokyo restaurants, the princess, 44, has been busy at everything apart from her official duties, sniffs the Weekly Gendai magazine, which accuses her of being a "celebrity mother".

"We wonder if the Imperial Household can explain how this is improving the health of the princess," another magazine has asked.

Princess Masako was diagnosed with a stress-induced illness, widely believed to be depression, after cutting back her official engagements in 2003. She has since made the odd foray into the public eye but has yet to return to a full schedule.

The Oxford-educated former diplomat took part in only two official engagements outside Tokyo last year and none abroad, leaving her husband, Prince Naruhito, to travel alone to Mongolia. The Prince has already announced that he will be travelling without his wife to Brazil in June.

Despite intense public interest, her condition is reported in short, bland dispatches by the Imperial Household Agency (IHA).

Aera magazine recently published a list of 20 questions to the princess, which included "Are you getting better?", "Is your treatment working?" and "How do you feel about the arrival of the new prince?", the last a reference to the birth last year of Prince Hisahito to her sister-in-law, Princess Kiko. Princess Masako's depression is thought to have been triggered by her own failure to produce a male heir, accompanied by very public pressure from the Imperial Household to keep trying.

Japan's big dailies still treat the imperial institution with kid gloves, but the weeklies have started to take those gloves off when it comes to the princess. Some reported that she played tennis on 15 August, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in the Second World War, and missed a birthday party for her father-in-law, Emperor Akihito.

The IHA was recently forced to public deny press claims that the princess had been given a dressing down by her mother-in-law, Empress Masako.

"She should explain whether her treatment is working, and how she spends her time," one magazine said this month. "The public needs to know."