Like Birds In A Gilded Cage

The rumors from Tokyo were breathless: Japan's pretty, Harvard-educated Crown Princess Masako was pregnant! ("Might" be pregnant, the Asahi Shimbun said, very carefully.) The world's oldest ruling dynasty--2,500 years and counting--may be rescued from an eclipse of the son.

If Crown Prince Naruhito fails to father a male heir, the dynasty will be in even greater difficulty than it is already. The imperial family, whose first capital was established in the Yamato River valley near Kyoto, is not in any better shape than Japan itself. With a faltering economy and banks and businesses going bust, Tokyo needs some good news and a happy ending. What better than a smiling couple cooing over a newborn child?

What's wrong with this picture? Was it glued together? In a way, yes. Masako was not eager to marry the crown prince in the first place. She was a young professional diplomat with an exciting career ahead. But once she married into the palace, she would lose all that and become a caged bird. The crown prince was widely regarded as "a very average guy." But nobody turns down an offer of marriage to the future emperor. Masako's family would have been ostracized. The public sympathized with the bride's plight. Since then, the going has clearly been tough. Everything Masako says or does in public is stage-managed by the Imperial Household Agency, watchdog of the dynasty. Empress Michiko, like Masako a commoner (albeit the daughter of the richest noodlemaker in Asia), has suffered terribly at the hands of palace minions, a vicious mother-in-law and a reactionary Imperial Household Agency.

This unbearable situation was created by the architects of the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century. For centuries Japan had been indirectly ruled by the daughters of the wealthy Soga and Fujiwara families. They were dethroned by warlord shoguns of the Minamoto, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa clans. By the middle of the 19th century, emperors had become so obscure and powerless that most Japanese did not know they existed. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration was staged by rebellious clans eager to confront the challenge of the West. In the shogun's place, the young Meiji emperor, Mutsuhito, was restored to power. Although the Japanese people were led to believe that the Meiji emperor was a god of absolute power, he was manipulated by Japan's landed oligarchs. Mutsuhito took all of this in stride. His son Yoshihito, the Taisho emperor, tried to become a truly popular monarch. The oligarchs reacted by isolating the imperial family. Since then, they have lived, as one member put it, "like birds in a cage."

Mutsuhito's grandson, Hirohito, became the willing pawn of Japan's militarists. When they were defeated in World War II, Hirohito turned into the pawn of a new generation of tycoons, whose weapon was Japan Inc. Hirohito's son, Emperor Akihito, is a supremely compassionate man. Nevertheless, he has been powerless to influence events, or to prevent the long slide into political corruption that has recently given the Liberal Democratic Party and Japan Inc. a bad name. The country is run by a consensus of the powers that be: the invisible but incredibly rich tycoons, the powerbrokers of the LDP and the godfathers of the Japanese underworld.

Masako married into an imperial family that was becoming more and more isolated. As years passed without children, there was cruel speculation that she was infertile, or the marriage loveless. Japan's backbiting aristocracy scorned Masako as an outsider so contaminated by foreign ideas that she had "forgotten how to wear kimono." If all goes well, Masako's baby will be born in August 2000. The tension surrounding such an event is palpable. After the marriage of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako, a siren at the palace announced the birth of their children. The siren sounded four times for girls before it sounded twice for the birth of Akihito in 1933. (Bookies in Tokyo are betting Masako's is a girl.)

Some Japanese say that if Masako produces a girl, her greatest contribution could be opening up the succession to women. After the crown prince, next in line is his younger brother Akishino, his uncle Hitachi, several other male relatives who are getting long of tooth, followed by Akishino's two daughters. The Constitution would have to be amended before a girl could inherit the throne.

But many younger Japanese believe that nothing can redeem the dynasty from the dustbin. Most Japanese admire Emperor Akihito but think he is irrelevant. At the start of the new millennium Japan has moved too far into the world of a global marketplace to feel comfortable with such an arcane institution. They wish the dynasty would vanish in the same puff of smoke and mirrors that brought it back onstage 150 years ago, and take Japan's corrupt LDP politicians along with it. "How great it would be," a Tokyo executive told us, "to have the republic we crave without going through yet another palace coup or decades of violence and fraud. Before the Meiji coup, the imperial family were completely irrelevant. Today the emperors are again irrelevant. We feel sorry for Princess Masako." Many Japanese, like my friend, just wish they would all go away.