No fairy-tale endings for Japan's princess

Princess Masako
Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne
By Ben Hills

Tarcher / Penguin. $25.95


Reviewed by Paula Marantz Cohen


For The Inquirer

According to recent marketing studies, the princess fantasy is alive and well among the female populace. Sales of princess dolls and crinolines are booming. Record numbers of little girls are dressed in tiaras for Halloween by mothers dreaming of princesshood for themselves.

However delightful the fantasy of being a princess may be, the reality is not as appealing. We already know Princess Diana's tragic story. Now there is Princess Masako's.

In Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Ben Hills, an Australian journalist, describes the oppressive world of the Japanese royal family, and how a once lively and intellectually ambitious young woman was sacrificed to this world.

Masako Awada, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat, was educated at Harvard and Oxford, where she developed an interest in economics and a desire to follow in her father's footsteps and become a career diplomat. Then, during a routine official occasion, she had the bad luck to be noticed by Prince Naruhito, grandson of Hirohito and heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

On paper, these two young people seemed an excellent match. Naruhito, also educated at Oxford, was only a few years older than Masako and attracted to her intellect and seeming independence. Unlike Prince Charles, he had rejected younger, more subservient women from aristocratic families whom court officials favored. But Naruhito also had additional baggage: He was heir to a dynasty that goes back more than 2,600 years.

Masako did not initially accept Naruhito's proposal of marriage. She had career aspirations, and both she and her family knew the demands that royalty entailed. However, through a combination of Naruhito's persistence and the pressures of the Kunaicho, the court bureaucrats whom Hill calls "Men in Black" - who were desperate to see their thirtysomething prince marry and procreate - she finally acquiesced.

Hill cannot tell us much about Masako's day-to-day life inside the court, so guarded is the Japanese royal family. But he tells us enough about the requirements of royalty in Japan, and especially the pressure on the princess to produce a male heir, to paint a harrowing picture. Poor Masako finally conceived nine years into her marriage, but only after in-vitro fertilization treatments. When she had the baby at the age of 37, she disappointed national expectations by having a girl.

Formal efforts got underway a few years ago to change the rules of succession and allow for a female heir. These were abandoned when Naruhito's brother's wife gave birth to a son. The event relieved some of the pressure on Masako, but was also a blow to her dignity and status. Some conservative elements in Japan were blatantly disdainful: What use, they asked, was a princess who could not perform her most important function?

After the birth of her daughter, Masako's already strained mental health deteriorated. She disappeared from public events, and rumors of incapacitating depression began to circulate. These rumors continue. As Hill notes, how can the princess' health improve when the conditions of her life cannot change? The book ends on a gloomy note. Short of suicide or divorce (which would require Masako to abandon her daughter to the royal family), she is stuck in her restrictive role.

In detailing the factors that trap the princess, Hill discusses some surprising restrictions that still exist in Japan. Antidepressants remain relatively taboo, as does in-vitro fertilization (Masako presumably had difficulty availing herself of both). In many households, women are expected to devote themselves entirely to their families and walk a few steps behind their husbands. When they marry, their names are obliterated from the records of their families of origin. Those who do not marry can encounter enormous obstacles rising in the workplace.

It is always difficult to separate the social from the personal in analyzing a life. As different as she is from Princess Diana, Princess Masako resembles her British counterpart in a certain fragility of mind. Caught between Eastern and Western traditions, she grew up with a knowledge of foreign countries but without a stable sense of where she belonged. She was also a classic "good girl," unusually dependent on her father's opinion and support.

Perhaps she would have suffered depression under more ordinary circumstances. But then, even the strongest young woman might be prone to mental breakdown when forced into a prescribed life, cut off from parents and siblings, hounded to procreate, and, when she did, considered to have failed to do it right. One comes away from reading about Masako (as one does with Diana) wondering whether the modern world, with its stress on individual self-realization, has rendered the demands of royalty impossible.

Without being bred to the life, how could one possibly adjust to it? And why should this adjustment be necessary when the institution, as Hill explains, is now a purely ceremonial one? (The royal family was stripped of its power as well as its age-old claim to divinity after Japan's defeat in World War II.)

This book is a cautionary tale to girls who want to be princesses. Dresses and tiaras are fine, but beware of Men in Black.


Paula Marantz Cohen, Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, is host of the Drexel InterView and author, most recently, of the novel "Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs."