Japan's crown princess admits depression

David McNeill
Saturday 31 July 2004 00:00 BST

Eight months after she mysteriously withdrew from public life, Japan's Crown Princess Masako has finally revealed she is suffering from stress-induced depression, almost certainly brought on by the pressure to produce a male heir to the world's oldest hereditary monarchy.

Eight months after she mysteriously withdrew from public life, Japan's Crown Princess Masako has finally revealed she is suffering from stress-induced depression, almost certainly brought on by the pressure to produce a male heir to the world's oldest hereditary monarchy.

A terse statement released through the Imperial Household Agency yesterday said the princess is being treated for Adjustment Disorder, a condition usually triggered by a traumatic event with symptoms that include headaches, and loss of appetite and energy.

Imperial official Hideki Hayashida told royal reporters that "issues relating to her pregnancies and miscarriage, and her busy life, in which she has difficulties drawing the line between the public and the private," were to blame for the Princess's condition.

The Japanese press said last night the princess is receiving "mental therapy", probably psychiatric treatment, and anti-depressants for her condition.

The princess has spent more than a decade bearing the responsibility for continuing the supposedly 2,600-year patriarchal line, which desperately needs a male baby after eight successive female births.

Many believe that she buckled under the pressure following a public statement last year by the Imperial Household Agency's Grand Steward, Toshio Yuasa, that he wanted the 40-year-old princess and her husband Prince Naruhito to have another child. Following fertility treatment Masako gave birth to Princess Aiko in 2001.

She had suffered a miscarriage in 1999, which was blamed on stress and media pressure.

Last December, she cancelled all public engagements following a bout of shingles, also apparently brought on by stress, and she has not been seen in public since.

In May, stories began circulating in the weekly press that the Imperial couple's marriage was in trouble after the princess shunned the cloistered Imperial Household to stay for more than a month at her family home in Nagano Prefecture with Princess Aiko.

The latest press release, sanctioned by the princess, ends months of speculation about her health, which reached fever pitch after her husband said at a press conference in May that she had "exhausted herself" trying to adapt to royal life, and obliquely criticised her royal handlers.

The comments, which Asahi royal-watcher Katsumi Iwai said were the equivalent of a "major earthquake under the Imperial Palace," caused one of the worst crises in the history of the institution.

The princess's decision to finally go public may have been sparked by her frustration about the stories that flourished in the absence of any clear announcement from the secretive Household Agency.

Yuriko Ono, a friend of the princess from her school days, said: "Her personality and condition was completely distorted in the press, especially in magazines. We don't have a royal press office like in the UK, so we can't counteract these stories. All this stuff about a tough Harvard diplomat, that's not her. She's not strong or outspoken. She has never complained about anything because that's not her personality."

The princess swapped a fast-track diplomatic career for life behind the Imperial moat when she married Prince Naruhito in 1993. Since then, she has been forced by Imperial protocol to take a demure back seat to her husband in public and avoid overshadowing him. On a number of occasions she has been reined in for speaking more than the prince and walking ahead of him, adding to her sense of frustration and isolation inside the Palace, say observers.

The Imperial Household, which came under a barrage of criticism following the prince's remarks in May, seems to have adopted a softly-softly approach to their troubled charge in the hope that she will get back on her feet quickly and deflect public anger.

Mr Hayashida said although no date had been set for the princess to return to work, Household officials are considering "revamping her official duties," adding: "We would like to first give priority to private activities to raise her spirits."

However, in a sign that it has not lost its secretive ways, the agency also warned the media away from directly interviewing the princess's doctors or from further speculation about her condition. The agency leads conservative opinion in Japan, which may be slowly accepting that the princess may never have another child and that the constitution will have to be changed to allow Princess Aiko to become the first female emperor since Gosakuramachi, who ruled from 1762 to 1771.

Professor Herbert Bix, who has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Imperial Family said: "Today, more than 80 percent of the Japanese people are eager to move into an era of female emperors. In this 21st century society, with its diverse male and female lifestyles, the imperial family can no longer function as a model, let alone a symbol of national unity. The Imperial Household Law that supports the imperial institution is totally out of sync with the times."

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