Out of Japan: Self-restraint conceals a right royal sham

TOKYO - One of the most extraordinary things about the 'surprise announcement' on Japanese television stations last Wednesday evening that the Crown Prince had finally found a bride was that it was not a surprise at all.

It was a vast sham, since the television channels and leading newspapers had known about the engagement for weeks. And yet because of the peculiar role of the media in Japan, everyone co-operated in the make-believe theatre of the happy moment, declaring with one voice how overjoyed they were at the unexpected news.

The fact that this pretence could be maintained gives an interesting insight into Japan, and the legendary distinction between tatemae, or outward appearance, and honne, the underlying truth which is rarely articulated and is usually divined by subtle guesswork. For the television newscasters there seemed nothing incongruous in their upbeat tones as they relayed the surprise announcement, and the fact that within minutes of the news breaking they were all showing lengthy documentaries on the Crown Prince and his future bride, Masako Owada, which had clearly been prepared weeks beforehand.

The story starts a year ago, when the Imperial Household Agency, a tradition-bound institution which tightly controls all news about the Imperial family, asked the Japanese media to stop its hysterical coverage of potential brides for the Crown Prince. Some women had been hounded day and night by journalists, and the agency was afraid the press would interfere with the search for a future empress. So journalists collectively agreed to practice jishuku, or self-restraint, in their coverage.

The last time the press exercised this jishuku was in 1988, during the final protracted illness of Emperor Hirohito. The press respectfully reported on the amount of blood the emperor received in transfusions each day, but never once used the dreaded word cancer to describe his condition.

The period of voluntary self- restraint over Prince Naruhito's courting was due to expire at the end of this month, by which time a formal announcement was to be made. The Crown Prince, it now emerges, had already clinched his engagement with Ms Owada last month, and news organisations were discreetly told to prepare for the official announcement some time in January.

But news of this was leaked to a correspondent of a US paper stationed in Tokyo, who duly filed a story. Within minutes of the story appearing in the US, the news was back in Tokyo, and an emergency meeting of the Japan Newspaper and Publishers and Editors Association was called. It decided that the 'self- restraint' policy could no longer be maintained. Half-an-hour after this meeting, television stations simultaneously broke the story, while newspapers published special evening editions.

Foreign pressure had forced yet another change on Japan. In fact, the same thing happened in 1958, when foreign media were the first with news of the engagement of Akihito, the current Emperor, to his wife, Michiko.

Foreign reporters are excluded from the press club which covers the Imperial Palace, and therefore the foreign media were never asked to practise the self-restraint of their Japanese colleagues. Presumably the Imperial Household Agency did not think that foreign reporters would manage to ferret out the secret.

But far from being embarrassed about being scooped by a foreign paper on the Crown Prince's engagement, the Japanese press proceeded to congratulate itself on keeping the story quiet for so long. The day after the announcement, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Tokyo's most influential daily paper, said proudly that its editors had known about the engagement as far back as 12 December.

The contrast with the British press could not be more stark. It is hard to imagine an English paper running a story saying that a royal scoop published by one of its competitors had actually been known to its own reporters for four weeks, but kept quiet 'to protect the royal family's privacy'. But then the whole concept of voluntary self-restraint might be a bit difficult to explain to London's royal press corps.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own