Japan’s new emperor has a sense of humour. He might need it
Naruhito must deal with a succession crisis, protect his troubled wife and navigate an ideological fog
Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty
Japan’s new emperor once famously railed against the pressures that had driven his wife from public life. In 2004 Naruhito, then a prince, said Masako “had completely exhausted herself” trying to adapt to life in the imperial household, where her “individuality” had been stifled. The criticism was like an earthquake under the manicured lawns of the Imperial Palace, said one observer.
Naruhito’s fleeting rebellion was widely interpreted as a sign of tension between the demands of the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy and the modern values of its younger members. Now, Empress Masako and Emperor Naruhito (59), who formally ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne on Wednesday, are charged with upholding its ancient traditions.
Unlike the British royals, with their spendthrift glamour, scandal and tabloid ubiquity, Japan’s imperial family has struggled to reinvent itself since Naruhito’s grandfather, Emperor Hirohito was forced to renounce his status as a living god in 1945. Its members resemble gilded civil servants and have been restricted to the role of constitutional figureheads.
The palace restrictions that some suspect drove Masako, a Harvard-educated former career diplomat, into stress-induced seclusion and depression were on display again on Wednesday. The official ceremony that installed her husband as Japan’s 126th emperor was off-limits to the family’s female members – even his wife.
Princess Masako entered the institution reluctantly. She resisted Naruhito’s wooing for years until agreeing to marry him in 1993 after he promised to protect her for his “entire life”. Some expected her to bring a modern sheen to the family, but this early promise has visibly wilted as her health and enthusiasm for playing demure second fiddle visibly waned.
Her first public encounter with palace protocol came early during the couple’s first press conference together when she was scolded by traditionalists for speaking a few seconds more than the prince. Further criticism came after she broke protocol by walking ahead of her husband and, on another occasion, offered an unsolicited opinion.
Naruhito appears intensely loyal to his wife, who has recently started to emerge from her shell. And he clearly has a sense of humour. His biography, The Thames and I, recalls his encounters with kippers, dingy pubs and stingy baths as a student in Britain in the mid-1980s. In one episode he recalls being barred from an Oxford disco for wearing jeans. He calls the UK years as perhaps “the happiest time of my life”.
In acceding to the throne on Wednesday, he pledged to follow the course of his beloved father, Akihito, who helped lift the family out of the shadow cast by his own father, the wartime emperor Hirohito. Emperor Naruhito swore to act “according to the constitution” and fulfil his responsibility “as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people of Japan. ”
Trimming the tree
That may have been a nod to those who would enlarge the role of the family in Japanese affairs, beyond the much-diminished one cast after the war. Traditionalists resent that the constitution, written during the US-led occupation of Japan in the 1940s, not only stripped the emperor of his powers but brutally trimmed the imperial family tree, leaving it with a dwindling pool of successors.
Emperor Naruhito will have to deal with this succession crisis, protect his troubled wife and navigate through the ideological fog that swirls around the imperial institution. But his biggest struggle may be keeping the institution relevant. Although still revered and discussed in semi-mystical terms by nationalists and a dwindling number of older Japanese raised to believe the emperor was a god, most youngsters seem indifferent to the imperial family.