Media checked as the royal pawn plays the Japanese mating game: Terry McCarthy on press gagging and the imperial bachelor who cannot find a wife

WHILE the British media have feasted on the marital problems of the Royal Family, in Japan, where one of the Imperial Family is facing his own marital difficulties, the press has faithfully kept silent for six months.

The plight of Crown Prince Naruhito, 32 years old and destined to become the 126th Emperor of Japan, has nothing to do with infidelity, under-dressing at swimming pools or a spouse's suicidal antics. His problem is that he cannot find a wife.

The media blackout on the mating search of the imperial bachelor began in February this year. The Imperial Household Agency initiated the policy of self-censorship by Japanese newspapers and magazines, after complaints from women who suddenly found themselves on the media's watch-list of potential brides. This further restricted the Japanese media, already working under the shadow of the 'chrysanthemum taboo'. The chrysanthemum serves as the imperial insignia, and the taboo dates from the Sixties, when fanatical right-wingers made several violent attacks on publishers whom they accused of disrespect towards the imperial system.

When the blackout was demanded, some reporters accredited to the Imperial Palace's press lobby thought it meant that an engagement announcement was imminent. Tension ran high in the days before the Crown Prince's birthday on 23 February, and reporters and photographers were kept on 24-hour standby. But the birthday came and went, and the Crown Prince still hadn't popped the question.

Before the blackout, the officially accredited imperial-watchers had made an impact on the empress-designate story. The weekly magazines directed at young women, dug up new names - often surprising the women themselves, who might never have met the Crown Prince but who woke up one morning to find an army of paparazzi camped outside their front door.

Last year the family of one temporary favourite, Naoko Taki, lodged an official protest when their daughter was besieged inside her house for three days. Another woman, Masako Owada, who works for the foreign ministry in the North American division and who apparently has met the Crown Prince, found her working day was becoming impossible under the weight of journalists' inquiries.

Nor did the media spare the Crown Prince himself. Prince Naruhito plays the violin, and while studying at Oxford he wrote a thesis on 18th-century barge traffic on the River Thames. After he turned 30, the media branded him a boring old man. One magazine suggested the prince change his hairstyle to attract women, and published a series of doctored portraits of him with different hair-cuts. This earned an immediate reprimand from the Imperial Household Agency.

Such offences may seem slight compared to the kind of revelations and rumours about British royalty, but in Japan the press is forced to tiptoe around the main reason for Prince Naruhito's difficulty in finding a bride: that the life of a member of the Imperial Family is regulated by the 1,100 members of the conservative Imperial Household Agency.

The Crown Prince's father, Emperor Akihito, married Michiko Shoda, a commoner, in 1959. It was the first time in recorded history that a person of non-royal blood was admitted into the imperial line. After several years, stories were leaked about how miserable Princess Michiko was, cooped up in the palace. In 1963, the palace had to deny reports that she had suffered a nervous breakdown. The 'Michiko factor' is apparently a deterrent to young women brought up outside the strict confines of palace life.

But with marital speculation off-limits, the Japanese media have turned to Britain to slake their thirst for royal sensationalism. Acres of glossy photographic space have been devoted to the flesh of the Duchess of York in the racy weeklies. A more serious magazine, Shokun, ran a story comparing the royal families in Britain and Japan, and gave much weight to the fact that the British Royal Family has intermarried with 'foreign' bloodlines, whereas the Emperor's bloodline is 'pure Japanese'.

(Photograph omitted)

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