Empress 'struck down by sorrow': Japanese palace officials seem to be blaming the media for Michiko's collapse and speech loss

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - Japan's Empress Michiko, unable to speak since collapsing on her 59th birthday two days ago, is believed to be suffering a temporary symptom caused by sorrow or emotional shock, a palace official said yesterday.

'The results of Thursday's neurological tests, including a brain scan, showed that everything was normal,' a senior palace official said in a telephone interview. 'The Empress is still unable to speak but palace doctors believe it's a temporary symptom.

'They said it's probably a temporary loss of speech brought on by some great sorrow or emotional shock,' he said, denying speculation that Michiko probably suffered a mild stroke.

The palace appeared to be pointing the finger of blame at several Japanese magazines for Michiko's collapse on Wednesday morning, just before the start of her birthday festivities. Conservative magazines, staunchly opposed to any attempts to modernise the centuries-old imperial court, have launched harsh attacks in recent months on both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko for their outgoing and Westernised ways.

Michiko, the first commoner empress, has been the main target of the sniping. The daughter of a rich flour miller, she has been attacked as a dictator determined to take over management of the imperial household.

In an interview published in newspapers on Wednesday to coincide with her birthday, she reflected with sadness on the media salvoes, which are believed to be inspired by a declining number of ultra-conservative courtiers. 'I have to lend an ear to any criticism to reflect upon myself . . . but I feel a deep sorrow and bewilderment towards reports which are not true,' said Michiko, whose husband became emperor in January 1989 on the death of his father, Hirohito.

Michiko, dressed in a brown silk dress and wearing a thick gold necklace, looked drawn but dignified on Thursday night as she left a private hospital in the main imperial palace grounds. Her only daughter, Princess Nori, was at her side for the short drive back to the Akasaka Palace.

The palace said she was examined by a leading neurologist, Ichiro Kanezawa of the Tokyo University Hospital, who conducted a brain scan and other tests lasting about 50 minutes.

That the examination took place a day and a half after Michiko collapsed - she was unconscious for several hours - stirred some controversy in Japan. 'We don't know why she wasn't tested earlier but I assure you that she was under close medical examination from the very moment she fainted,' the palace official said. 'There's no basis to rumours that she may have been neglected.'

From early on, the secretive imperial household took pains to play down the empress' condition. After Michiko collapsed, the palace at first said she had barely fainted. Later it said she showed no signs of paralysis of the limbs but was unable to speak.

(Photograph omitted)