ROYAL CRI­SIS: the an­cient law that threat­ens the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial fam­ily

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Ja­pan’s royal fam­ily is an­chored by thou­sands of years of tra­di­tion, but as another princess walks away from regal priv­i­lege to marry the man she loves, might they now be forced to shake off the shack­les of his­tory in or­der to en­sure their sur­vival? Wil­liam Lan­g­ley re­ports.

The bride spoke of her hap­pi­ness, the groom of his good for­tune, but as royal wed­dings go, the Oc­to­ber 28 mar­riage of Ja­pan’s Princess Ayako to busi­ness­man Kei Moriya was clearly short on cer­e­mony. No car­riages, no bands, no crowds, and – from the Im­pe­rial fam­ily – no com­pro­mises. When Ayako, 28, per­formed the tra­di­tional ex­change of rings with her 32-year-old groom, she was also ex­chang­ing her royal life for one as a com­moner. Princesses in the world’s old­est monar­chy are not al­lowed to marry out­side the royal ranks, so hav­ing ar­rived at the Meiji Shrine in cen­tral Tokyo as “Her Im­pe­rial High­ness”, she left it as plain Mrs Moriya. Her “dowry” was a one-off, tax-free

pay­ment of $1.25mil­lion from the royal cof­fers.

Yet there is more to Ayako’s de­mo­tion than a touch­ing tale of a woman sac­ri­fic­ing all for love. It arises from what is be­com­ing the big­gest cri­sis in the Ja­panese monar­chy’s 2500-year-old his­tory. While other royal fam­i­lies around the world have shaken off the dy­nas­tic cob­webs, re­freshed their blood­lines and adapted to so­cial change, the Im­pe­rial house­hold clings jeal­ously to its an­cient ways.

Se­crecy, tra­di­tion and obei­sance re­main its key­words, and while the noth­ing-new­fan­gled ap­proach may have helped main­tain the monar­chy’s mys­tique, it has also cre­ated a prob­lem that no one fore­saw or can cur­rently find an answer to.

Es­sen­tially, the royal fam­ily is run­ning out of roy­als – and most con­spic­u­ously out of mar­riage­able men. In the four decades from 1965 to 2006 not a sin­gle male baby was born into the ranks. As a con­se­quence, Ja­pan’s young princesses – cur­rently seven of them – have been left with no chance of find­ing hus­bands, un­less, like Ayako, they ven­ture beyond the royal con­fines.

“It is a bizarre sit­u­a­tion,” says Pro­fes­sor Jef­frey Kingston of Tokyo’s Tem­ple Uni­ver­sity, “and not re­ally sus­tain­able. Ev­ery­one ac­cepts that, but the hard part is agree­ing how to change things.”


Ayako isn’t the first princess to jump ship. Four years ago, her older sis­ter, Princess Noriko, mar­ried Ku­ni­maro Senge, the cu­ra­tor of a his­toric Ja­panese shrine. Although the groom came from an aris­to­cratic fam­ily, and was a sec­ond cousin of the reign­ing Em­peror Ak­i­hito, he was deemed in­suf­fi­ciently “royal” to make the cut as a hus­band, and Noriko was forced to re­nounce her ti­tle and priv­i­leges and also ac­cepted a pay-off. A third princess, Mako, aged 27, and the Em­peror’s old­est grand­daugh­ter, is cur­rently threat­en­ing to marry a Tokyo trainee lawyer, de­spite her fam­ily’s ob­jec­tions.

“All this gets han­dled in an out­wardly polite and civilised way,” says Hinota Mat­suda, edi­tor of a Lon­don-based Ja­panese newslet­ter, “but in re­al­ity it’s an in­sur­rec­tion. The women of the Im­pe­rial fam­ily are say­ing they have had enough.”

The princesses’ mutiny has come at a par­tic­u­larly awk­ward time for the Im­pe­rial fam­ily. Af­ter 30 years on the Chrysan­the­mum Throne, Ak­i­hito, 84, is sched­uled to ab­di­cate on April 30, 2019 in favour of his mild-man­nered son, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his trusted courtiers are des­per­ate for a smooth han­dover. But a ri­val fac­tion of mod­ernisers – in and out­side court – sees a rare chance to over­haul some of the rigid codes and pro­to­cols that shape ev­ery as­pect of the monar­chy, and the two sides are squar­ing off.

Among those de­mand­ing change, the plight of the princesses has be­come a ral­ly­ing cry. Ayako – highly-ed­u­cated, well-trav­elled, at­trac­tive and pop­u­lar with the pub­lic – would ap­pear to be ex­actly the kind of as­set any switched-on royal fam­ily would cher­ish. The daugh­ter of the late Prince Nori­hito, she was work­ing as a re­searcher at a top uni­ver­sity when she met Kei, a ris­ing young ex­ec­u­tive with a Ja­panese ship­ping firm. “My mother is a friend of his mother,” she later ex­plained, “and they in­tro­duced us, and all I re­mem­ber is that our con­ver­sa­tion was so lively, and the time went by so fast it didn’t seem that we hardly knew each other.”

Soon enough they were in love, and alarm bells were ring­ing at the palace, where Ayako was left in lit­tle doubt of the con­se­quences of tak­ing the re­la­tion­ship for­ward. “It isn’t that the Im­pe­rial fam­ily would ac­tu­ally try to stop any­one

mar­ry­ing,” says Hinota. “They un­der­stand the prob­lem, and in a way they sym­pa­thise, but they re­ally don’t want to change the rules.”

A week be­fore her wed­ding, Ayako was granted a fi­nal au­di­ence with the Em­peror, at which she made her for­mal farewells, and pledged con­tin­u­ing al­le­giance as a pri­vate cit­i­zen. Along with the right to vote, she may now speak in a per­sonal ca­pac­ity, and many Ja­panese are won­der­ing what she might say.

Only around 30 in­vited guests and 800 well-wish­ers gath­ered at the Shinto shrine, set in vel­vety Tokyo park­land, for her wed­ding. Ayako wore a tra­di­tional silk uchiki ki­mono of yel­low silk, em­broi­dered with pink flow­ers and fern mo­tifs, while Kei was in West­ern-style morn­ing dress with a top hat. Af­ter rit­ual prayers and a sip of sake, the pair ex­changed their rings, and emerged into the sun­shine as man, wife, and – in the eyes of many – vic­tims of a need­lessly in­tran­si­gent sys­tem.


Like the court it­self, the pub­lic is deeply di­vided about the need for change. In May, mil­lions of Ja­panese tuned in to watch the spec­tac­u­lar wed­ding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, an Amer­i­can, bi-racial di­vorcee, but al­most none of them could imag­ine such a union in Ja­pan. “It’s im­pos­si­ble,” says Hideya Kawan­ishi, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Kobe Uni­ver­sity. “It’s not writ­ten in the Im­pe­rial House­hold Law, but no di­vorcee would be con­sid­ered. There would be a thor­ough check on her background, and a woman like Meghan would def­i­nitely be ex­cluded.”

Other experts say merely be­ing a for­eigner would disqual­ify any po­ten­tial royal bride. The last recorded mar­riage of a se­nior royal to a non-Ja­panese bride was in the 8th cen­tury – and even that is dis­puted!

Up­hold­ing tra­di­tion is of crit­i­cal im­por­tance to the Ja­panese court. It could hardly be oth­er­wise. Em­peror Ak­i­hito can trace his fam­ily line back through an as­ton­ish­ing 126 gen­er­a­tions – “al­most lit­er­ally,” writes Frank Gib­ney, an Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor of Ja­panese stud­ies, “into the mists of time.” No other monar­chy comes close in terms of en­durance, with the lin­eage of Bri­tain’s royal fam­ily, for ex­am­ple, stretch­ing a mere 950 years from the Nor­man con­quest, and even in this time pe­riod the crown has passed through sev­eral dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies.

“The con­cept of the con­tin­u­ous, undi­luted bloodline is ab­so­lutely cen­tral to how Ja­panese na­tion­al­ists see their iden­tity,” says US Pro­fes­sor Ken Rouff, au­thor of sev­eral books on the

Ja­panese monar­chy. “They be­lieve that if it is bro­ken, Ja­pan will cease to ex­ist.”

Although the Im­pe­rial fam­ily was slimmed down and stripped of some priv­i­leges af­ter Ja­pan’s de­feat in World War Two, Naruhito, 58, will in­herit an in­sti­tu­tion that is es­sen­tially unchanged since the medieval Shogun era. The throne, along with all ma­jor po­si­tions of power, is re­served for men, and the main role of women re­mains rais­ing heirs and of­fer­ing oc­ca­sional dec­o­ra­tive re­minders of their ex­is­tence on spe­cial oc­ca­sions. So lit­tle of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion is re­leased about them that when Empress Na­gako, widow of the late Hiro­hito, died aged 97 in 2000, mil­lions of Ja­panese were unaware that she had still been alive.

The pro­hi­bi­tion against mar­ry­ing com­mon­ers only ap­plies to fe­male roy­als; men can – within rea­son – marry who they like, and Naruhito’s own wife, the Ox­ford­e­d­u­cated soon-to-be Empress Masako, is the com­moner daugh­ter of a diplo­mat. Ac­cord­ing to Masako’s bi­og­ra­pher, Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist Ben Hill, she ar­rived de­ter­mined to in­tro­duce changes, but was ruth­lessly crushed by the sys­tem, and to­day – re­port­edly suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion – rarely leaves her rooms in the Togu Palace. Ac­cord­ing to court eti­quette, she must walk three steps be­hind her hus­band with her eyes low­ered, and even to travel into Tokyo she must re­quest per­mis­sion 14 days in ad­vance. She has no money of her own, or even a pri­vate tele­phone. When, early in her mar­riage, she gave a joint press con­fer­ence with Naruhito, she was ad­mon­ished by courtiers for speak­ing for nine sec­onds longer than her hus­band.

As Masako dis­cov­ered – per­haps too late – the real power at Court be­longs to the Im­pe­rial House­hold Agency (IHA), a se­cre­tive 1200-strong sec­re­tariat, ded­i­cated to main­tain­ing the Em­peror’s near-god-like stand­ing in na­tional life, and fe­ro­ciously re­sis­tant to re­form. De­spite pleas from politi­cians and cau­tious crit­i­cism from a usu­ally-com­pli­ant me­dia, the agency has fought off all at­tempts to lib­er­alise the rules.

In a sense, the IHA is en­gaged in an elab­o­rate con­jur­ing trick. With rel­a­tively few re­sources and a low-wattage royal line-up, it must con­vince the pub­lic that the Im­pe­rial fam­ily is the in­dis­pens­able essence of all that has made Ja­pan one of the world’s most suc­cess­ful, sta­ble and cul­tur­ally dis­tinc­tive coun­tries.

“Our real prob­lem,” wrote an anony­mous con­trib­u­tor to the Ashai Shim­bun news­pa­per re­cently, “is that our monar­chy is un­der no threat from any­one ex­cept it­self. Like all liv­ing or­gan­isms, it must evolve or die.”


Europe’s royal houses found them­selves in the same fix 50 years ago. The old sys­tem of us­ing mar­riage to build dy­nas­tic al­liances had fallen out of favour and the sup­ply of “tra­di­tional” princes and princesses was dry­ing up. The monar­chies saw lit­tle option but to re-in­vent them­selves, em­brac­ing more open life­styles, min­gling with the masses, and, oc­ca­sion­ally, mar­ry­ing into them.

Royal-to-com­moner mar­riages now barely raise an eye­brow in Europe. Crown Prince Fred­erik of Den­mark met his bride-to-be, Aus­tralian Mary Don­ald­son, in a Sydney pub. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Fred. What’s your phone num­ber?” To­day, they have four chil­dren and are wildly pop­u­lar. Swe­den’s Crown Princess Vic­to­ria mar­ried her per­sonal trainer, a be­spec­ta­cled fel­low Swede who now styles him­self the Duke of Vastergöt­land. King Felipe of Spain is mar­ried to Le­tizia Or­tiz, a TV pre­sen­ter whose fa­ther was a proof­reader on a pro­vin­cial news­pa­per. Af­ter decades of failed re­la­tion­ships, Prince Al­bert of Monaco wed Char­lene Witt­stock, a blonde, South African swim­ming cham­pion.

Ev­ery­thing sug­gests that the pub­lic ap­proves of these unions, and the fresh blood has helped re­vive many of the mori­bund royal fam­i­lies that might oth­er­wise have qui­etly faded away.

Ayako pro­fessed her­self happy with her lot, and no one sug­gests that she will be shunned by the court. The cou­ple’s wed­ding ban­quet was at­tended by Naruhito and Masako along with Ja­panese prime min­is­ter, Shinzo Abe, and a host of big­name politi­cians, busi­ness fig­ures and celebri­ties. Yet for all the power on dis­play, the event, at Tokyo’s Otano Ho­tel, sym­bol­ised the coun­try’s help­less­ness to make ad­just­ments to the old or­der.

Af­ter 25 cen­turies, the clock on the Im­pe­rial man­tel­piece is tick­ing more loudly: Ayako has gone, oth­ers are likely to fol­low, and one day there may be no one left to re-wind it.

ABOVE: Em­peror Ak­i­hito and his wife Michiko, who was a com­moner when they mar­ried in 1959. The law for­bid­ding mar­riage out­side the royal fam­ily ap­plies only to women. OP­PO­SITE: Ayako and Kei on their wed­ding day.

FROM TOP LEFT: Mem­bers of the Im­pe­rial fam­ily, led by Em­peror Ak­i­hito, at­tend­ing a gar­den party in 2017; Princess Ayako (right) with her mother, Princess Taka­mado in Fe­bru­ary this year; Ayako and Kei Moriya held a press con­fer­ence in July to an­nounce their en­gage­ment.

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