The sadness behind the Chrysanthemum Throne

The world's crowned heads are gathering in Madrid for today's royal wedding, but there will be one notable absentee. David McNeill reports on the plight of Japan's Princess Masako

When the coiffed and tiara-laden heads of more than 40 of the world's royal families take their places today for the wedding of Felipe of Borbon, heir to the Spanish throne, and Letizia Ortiz, there will be at least one conspicuously empty seat. Japan's Crown Princess Masako, invitedw ith her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, to represent the world's oldest unbroken dynasty, is instead sheltering from a growing political and media storm behind the high walls of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

When the coiffed and tiara-laden heads of more than 40 of the world's royal families take their places today for the wedding of Felipe of Borbon, heir to the Spanish throne, and Letizia Ortiz, there will be at least one conspicuously empty seat. Japan's Crown Princess Masako, invitedw ith her husband, Crown Prince Naruhito, to represent the world's oldest unbroken dynasty, is instead sheltering from a growing political and media storm behind the high walls of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Prince Felipe's guests are unlikely to spoil the party by indulging in vulgar speculation about the absence of such an important guest, but in Japan there has been less restraint. While the establishment media have proceeded warily, the commentary in the weeklies is dominated by a single question: has the princess had a nervous breakdown?

The speculation, which has grown since the princess withdrew from her official duties last December, intensified after her husband dropped a carefully worded bombshell on the eve of his departure to Europe last week.

It's hard to imagine a man less likely to spark one of the worst crises in the history of the institution. As he faced the press, the 44-year-old son of Emperor Akihito personified the bland civil-servant image favoured these days by the Imperial Household Agency, with his stiff-backed walk, fixed smile and Subbuteo hair. But few members of the press anticipated what followed. The prince, in the politest of courtly Japanese, railed against the pressures that have driven his wife from public life for almost half a year. The princess, he said, "had completely exhausted herself trying to adapt to life in the Imperial Household, where her "individuality" had been stifled. It was with "painful reluctance" that he was leaving for Europe without her.

The barbed comments, which Asahi royal-watcher Katsumi Iwai described as the equivalent of a "major earthquake under the Imperial Palace", are widely thought to have been a coded attack on the bureaucratsw ho run the royal household, and they drew the top minder reluctantly out of the shadows. The head of Japan's equivalent of Buckingham Palace, Toshio Yuasa, said he "did not know" what the prince meant about "stifling" Princess Masako, but the 700 mostly critical e-mails that subsequently bombarded his office seem to indicate that much of the public does not believe him. Run with rigid formality, palace life is known to be esp ecially

hard on its women who are seen but rarely heard in what is still a male-dominated institution.

Like her predecessors, Princess Masako is expected to take a demure back seat to her husband in public and avoid overshadowing him. Her first brush with palace protocol came early during the couple's first press conference together when she was scolded by traditionalists for speaking more than the prince. Further criticism came after she had broke protocol by walking ahead of the prince and on another occasion, offering an unsolicited opinion.

Empress Michiko, wife of the current inhabitant of the Chrysanthemum Throne, is widely believed to have had a nervous breakdown after years of battles inside the palace. Certainly the nervy, emaciated figure that walks a few careful steps behind Emperor Akihito today bears little resemblance to the vivacious commoner who married into the family in the 1950s.

Some fear the same fate for her daughter-in-law, who disappointed feminists when she traded a high- flying diplomatic career for a royal title in 1993. Ms Masako Owada, the carefree figure who studied at Oxford, speaks fluent English and was praised for bringing a breath of fresh air to musty palace life, has been replaced by the increasingly troubled-looking princess,who has visibly wilted in her cloistered role while struggling to produce a male heir to a dynasty that claims to trace its roots back to 660 BC.

The Imperial family has struggled to reinvent itself since the late Emperor Hirohito was forced to renounce his status as a living god in the aftermath of Japan's disastrous World War 2 campaign. Since 1945, its members have been restricted to the role of constitutional figureheads for a rather grey institution that badly needed the Diana-like glamour that Princess Masako seemed initially to offer. But this early promise quickly faded as her health and enthusiasm for the job visibly waned.

The pressure briefly eased in November 2001 when she gave birth to a daughter, Aiko, with the help (it has been alleged, though never admitted) of fertility experts. But with nine females and no male babies born into the family since 1965, the respite did not last long. After barely disguising their disappointment at the female birth, court bureaucrats upped the ante in the royal saga by declaring openly that they wanted the princess to have another child.

Mr Yuasa told reporters last June late last year that if the couple could not deliver, perhaps Prince Naruhito's younger brother Prince Akishino who already has two daughters, could oblige for the "prosperity of the Imperial Household". Naruhito's 35- year-old sister, the drab Princess Sayako, has also come under fire for failing to marry.

It is this womb-for-hire treatment by palace mandarins, amplified by the press, that many believe sent the princess spiralling into ill health and depression. Stories carrying quotes from anonymous Imperial Household insiders criticising her "selfish and wilful" behavior - eerily reminiscent of the treatment dished out to Empress Michiko - have not helped. Similar pressure is blamed for causing her to miscarry her first pregnancy in December 1999. Earlier this year, Prince Naruhito quietly pleaded with the media to leave his wife in peace and end speculation about the couple's failure to produce a boy.

The pliant establishment media duly stepped back, but in the absence of a clear explanation about why the princess suddenly disappeared from public view last December - around the time of Mr Yuasa's comments - the weeklies, which are excluded from press briefings in Japan's journalistic caste system, have carried on speculating. The only word from the princess was a terse written statement stating that she had made "utmost efforts" to adapt to her new life during the 10 years of her marriage and that her condition was the result of "accumulated exhaustion, mental and physical, during all those years."

At first the official story was that the princess was suffering from stress, then an attack of shingles, but as the months dragged on with still no sign of her, rumours began circulating that she was severely depressed and even that she wanted out of her marriage.

One weekly wondered why the princess had retreated to seclusion with two-year- old Princess Aiko in her family's summer home in the popular mountain resort of Karuizawa instead of one of the many official retreats dotted around the country. Another noted that when the princess's husband visited her in April, he spent at least one night at a local hotel instead of with his wife.

Prince Naruhito is still widely viewed among the public, however, as a supportive husband trying to do his best in difficult circumstances.When he said at the press conference last week that life in the palace had "denied Princess Masako's career as well as her personality," there was sympathy for him and the once lively woman who famously loved to travel before they married in 1993.

The couple has since then only managed five overseas trips, a remarkably stingy tally, and one that has added to speculation that a ban has been imposed on imperial globetrotting until the sound of a baby crying once again echoes around the palace walls. The prince left little doubt about his wife's feelings, saying she was " greatly distressed that she was not allowed to make overseas visits for a long time," and that she regarded such trips as crucial in "promoting international goodwill."

With the princess now in her forties and imperial line technically facing extinction unless a male heir can be produced, discussion has increasingly turned to the possibility of a female sitting on the Chrysanthemum Throne for the first time since Empress Go- Sakuramachi reigned from 1762 to 1771. The obvious model is Sweden,which revised its laws in 1979 to allow Crown Princess Victoria to succeed her father.

Revisions to the 1948 male-only succession law are clearly on the way. Taro Nakayama, the head of a 50- strong study group looking into the possibility of constitutional change, told the national daily Sankei Shimbun recently that the legislation was likely to be revised this year, and it is an open secret that government offi- cials have already begun laying the groundwork. As Mr Nakayama said: "Since Japan has had eight reigning empresses in history, succession by a new empress would not be strange."

More than 70 per cent of the Japanese public have said they back the idea of an empress, and both Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and senior figures from the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan have come out in support. But any attempt to alter the constitution is likely to face staunch opposition from the same conservatives who have made life so difficult for Princess Masako.

Much of the country waits for some sort of climax to the latest royal saga when Prince Naruhito returns from his European trip next week. Mr Yuasa, battered by the unwanted media attention, has said he wants to meet the prince directly, "to improve what I can," although that is unlikely to end the feud.

Whatever happens, the centre of attention looks set to shift very soon to Princess Masako's little daughter Aiko, who has peered from her mother's arms at hundreds of blinking cameras on the few occasions when she has been seen in public. The little princess, still six months shy of her third birthday, will soon find herself in the same media fishbowl that has made her parents' life such a misery.

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